Embracing the past

Jason Sherman is launching the Northeast Philadelphia Initiative to unite the neighborhoods and celebrate their combined history.

Keeping history alive: Jason Sherman, director of The King’s Highway, wants to launch a bus tour and convert one of the area’s most historic buildings into a museum that celebrates the area. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTOS

Jason Sherman isn’t satisfied with Northeast Philadelphia.

The director of the Northeast-centric documentary The King’s Highway loves the Northeast, obviously — he wouldn’t have directed an entire documentary about it and lived all of his life here otherwise.

But he has a radical vision for the area’s future. He wants, and wholeheartedly believes, it can be a tourist destination.

Sherman said his documentary, which was released in 2016, was just the beginning. He’s been enjoying unprecedented success — the doc found its way onto Amazon Prime’s member streaming service, and was picked up by film distributor Indie Rights for worldwide distribution.

“I put two years of my life into the movie, but I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “Thousands of people have seen this movie.”

But his work in the Northeast is far from over. Here’s Sherman’s vision in short: He wants to unify all neighborhoods in the Northeast to collectively celebrate the history of the area. Specifically, he wants to launch a bus tour and convert one of the area’s most historic buildings into a museum that celebrates the area.

Here’s what he has planned.

Northeast Philadelphia Initiative

Northeast Philadelphia is far from being Center City Philadelphia, Sherman says, for many reasons.

“Center City is a well-oiled machine,” he said. “They have Old City, they have historical areas, preservation areas, parks. They have everything working in unison to promote Philadelphia.”

Sherman said the feelings of unity don’t apply to Northeast Philadelphia, and that organizations he’s worked with are mostly concerned with forwarding their own agendas.

“We need to promote all our areas,” he said.

To help bring the neighborhoods together, Sherman is spearheading the Northeast Philadelphia Initiative, what he describes as a news aggregator that will give Northeast Philadelphians a single destination to find out all their information, including news and events.

NortheastPhilly.org is intended to be a central repository for information about the area, including news, entertainment and history.

It’s not a solo effort. Since bringing on a team, Sherman said he’s noticed productivity multiply.

“The Northeast has every recipe to become a destination,” said Tara Gontek. She is president of the Holmesburg Civic Association, and serves on the initiative’s board of directors.

“It houses more or less the social-economic status of this country. It reflects the recent migration patterns and is also affected by the rolling inner city population due to gentrification,” she said. “These are current events. These are hot topics now. Whatever you want to learn about America is here in the Northeast. It is America then and it is America now.”

As Sherman puts it, the Northeast deserves the credit and recognition Center City does.

“We built Center City,” he said, hitting his fist against the table each word for emphasis. “We traveled down King’s Highway every day to build the buildings. William Penn’s statue on City Hall, that was built in Tacony.”

The initiative has four main goals: starting a historic bus tour (more on that below), attracting tourism, saving historic buildings and uniting the neighborhoods.

“If every neighborhood could lend 10 percent of their time and resources to this, then we will be able to make it bigger, better, faster,” he said. “We could get larger budgets, more tourism, and the awareness level multiplies.”

Bus tour

Part of what unites the Northeast is its shared history. Sherman’s documentary focuses on King’s Highway, a stretch of road laid out in the original colonies in the 17th century.

Today, it’s covered by modern roads and highways, but the original road stretched 1,300 miles from Boston to Charlestown, passing through Philadelphia over what is currently Frankford Avenue. Sherman says the road is packed with history that is not being celebrated. For example, in 1789 George Washington crossed the Frankford Avenue Bridge (also referred to as Pennypack Creek Bridge) on his way to the first presidential inauguration.

As the Initiative’s first priority, Sherman is organizing the King’s Highway Bus Tour that will take participants to about 56 sites along the historic road, including Lower Dublin Academy, many churches and graveyards, and a stop at Frankford Creek.

The bus tour was scheduled to begin this spring but will be postponed until renovations on the 1697 King’s High Bridge are completed, which Sherman said are expected to be this year. Tickets will be available on the Initiative’s website.

In the meantime, Sherman is working on raising funds and creating metal signage to display along the highway that will signify the historic landmarks. A preliminary design displayed text saying, “You are traveling on the oldest road in America,” which Sherman said would be displayed on blocks that did not have signs for specific landmarks.

Lower Dublin Academy

Lower Dublin Academy is the oldest standing school building in Pennsylvania. The building was saved by Northeast resident Joe Menkevich, who submitted the successful proposal for its historical designation. Sherman believes the building’s lifespan is far from over.

“The Northeast Philadelphia Museum of American History,” Sherman said. “That’s the goal.”

Sherman envisions turning the building into a museum that showcases history from every Northeast neighborhood, creating an “anchor” for the area.

“If we work together, we can pull this off,” he said.

Sherman said if/when the museum opens, he would go to every organization in the Northeast and hopefully have them contribute something to display.

He estimates the project would take $1.2 million to pull off, which he is in the beginning stages of raising money for. He hopes once the project gains traction, it will receive grants and donations, but right now is focused on assembling a team to get started.

Luka Lakuriqi, vice president of Holmesburg Civic Association, has been working on preliminary sketches for the museum featuring two exhibit rooms.

Lakuriqi, who has a background in architecture, has preliminary sketches showcasing an outdoor area with gardens, benches and parks, as well as an indoor community room.

“Imagine an old Greek vase that has fallen apart,” Lakuriqi said. “The individual pieces mean nothing, but put the vase together and it becomes a whole. That is my inspiration right now. My job is to maintain the historic pieces of the building while filling the gaps with today’s needs.”

There’s still a lot to do before the museum can get underway, but Sherman is determined.

“I felt something magical was going on in Northeast Philly, but no one was helping it grow,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’m really good at, it’s raising awareness to something.”

His ambitious plans will require help. Sherman said anyone interested in helping could contact him at Hello@NortheastPhilly.org ••