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Venise Whitaker

“I’m using historic preservation and zoning to keep my neighborhood's character”

Venise Whitaker has always considered herself a rebel. From an early age she was taught to fight for what she believed in, despite opposition she might face. She fondly remembers growing up in Port Richmond and Frankford, as a self-described loner latchkey kid who read books and rescued neglected animals from the Philly streets.

At the age of 14 she got involved in the punk rock scene, where she found likeminded teens, many of whom have grown up into activists like her. Her first experience as an activist was organizing against racism in that scene. 

When she was 17, Venise joined the grassroots movement ACTUP. This led her to get a degree in psychology with a minor in feminism and multicultural studies.

As an adult, Venise’s passion and determination for helping those in need has only grown, including animals, buildings and humans alike in her Fishtown community.

In 2016 a developer proposed an adaptive re-use for St. Laurentius Church that would convert the church’s interior into 23 units. A group of neighbors familiar with Venise’s passion for activism approached her about this proposal to alter the interior of the historic church.

  • st laurentius aerial by 3ddogprinting
    Photo Credit: 3ddogprinting

St. Laurentius, a 19th century twin-spired brownstone church at the corner of Berks and Memphis, was the first national Polish parish in the US. “Parish,” meaning it was the first dual school and church in the US, and “national” in the sense that anyone could attend, regardless of geographical proximity or religious denomination.

Recognizing the church for the civic and cultural asset that it was, Venise and other concerned Fishtown residents formed the Faithful Laurentians in order to oppose the variance for the conversion to apartments.

  • interior of st laurentius
  • interior of st laurentius2
  • interior of st laurentius3

When the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the project, Venise was able to lead the Faithful Laurentians in the process to appeal their decision, thanks in part to what she learned in CPI:

Everything I gained from CPI was essential and empowering, especially hearing the other participants’ stories.

Her perseverance derives from both her love of the building itself--“The interior of that church is just beautiful, and the church as a whole is a beacon. You can see it from every aspect of Fishtown.”—and what she learned from CPI:

The CPI course, instructors and staff are remarkable and inspired me to continue being actively engaged in my community despite many obstacles.

Venise has an impressive knowledge of historic preservation, thanks to both her on-the-ground work and the CPI elective class she took on Historic Preservation. This know-how has come in handy beyond the St. Laurentius project.

She has been volunteering for Kensington Olde Richmond Heritage, doing outreach in the neighborhood about the importance of local historic buildings that are not designated on the Philadelphia Register. Venise is particularly concerned about historic wooden-framed houses, a number of which she has seen demolished.

  • Demolition of an 1810 wooden house in Fishtown
  • Demolition of another wooden house in Fishtown
  • Demolition of another wooden house in Fishtown

Venise’s childhood home in Frankford was a wooden framed house built in the early 18th century, and she’s now working with Kensington Olde Richmond Heritage to form a Wooden House Society that will begin in Fishtown.

As part of her outreach she also worked with other local preservationists to organize a neighborhood screening of the Kings Highway film.

Since completing CPI, Venise wrote her first proposal to nominate a neighborhood building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, on which she collaborated with a fellow preservationist after they realized they were nominating the same building. Never one to settle, she is now working on her second nomination.

She also assisted several neighbors in preserving a green space behind their homes that was in danger of being developed.

Venise volunteers at Palmer Cemetery, which has been a part of Fishtown for over 280 years. She developed a tour of the historic cemetery to promote its rich historic and cultural significance.

  • palmer cemetery event

She also worked with the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) on their plan to install tree trenches around the cemetery. Venise demonstrated how it could interfere with the graves below ground and PWD decided to relocate the installation. 

In addition to all her volunteer preservation work, Venise volunteers on the Zoning committee for her local civic group, Fishtown Neighborhood Association, and for Save Our Sites, a non-profit city-wide preservation network.

One of the most exciting developments for Venise since completing CPI has been turning her passion into her career. In July of 2017, she was appointed for a position in a City Council office!

She had always been interested in city politics, and credits her neighborhood activism and Citizen Planner credentials for helping her be selected for this role:

CPI empowered me and strengthened my skill set in the areas of zoning and planning. Due to CPI, I was a strong candidate and was hired for a position in a City Council office.

In her new role, Venise assists Philadelphians in the Council District with housing, real estate taxes, residential permit parking, vacant or abandoned buildings, street improvements, basic systems repair/weatherization grant, nuisance properties, utility assistance, starting a business, historic preservation, zoning and more!

In the future, she hopes to incorporate historic preservation, the local arts scene, murals, and mental health programming into her work. (She notes that her volunteer work is not affiliated with her job.)

As if that wasn’t enough, Venise has also been working to preserve affordable artist spaces and the art community in Fishtown! She has been talking with many artists and collectives, including and Art Department and True Hand, about hosting more art events, including during First Fridays.

For one, she helped the owner of True Hand get a zoning variance to turn the former Living Word Church building into a live-work space, a reuse that is in keeping with Venise’s interest in historic preservation

She draws inspiration from Mitchell Silver’s presentation at the CPI graduation and City Planning annual celebration, particularly when he said:

Planning is about the place, but more importantly about the people.

Venise’s takeaway?:

“I continued to be patient and discuss the importance of my community being a vibrant place for all.  Fishtown is that little slice of heaven, we should preserve its history while welcoming new development that embraces the fabric of the community”

  • venise baptism

Venise went from being baptized as a baby in a Polish church to being a historic Polish parish’s biggest advocate!