It takes a special kind of person to change a community—imaginative enough to see a different future, tenacious enough to make it happen, and, occasionally, bold enough to stir things up.
Recently, Philadelphia lost two such local heroes: Paul vanMeter, a Callowhill artist and unflagging champion for the development of the City Branch portion of the Rail Park, and Pastor Martha Lang, a pastor who turned a derelict vacant lot in East Poplar into Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.
The Collaborative and many of our volunteers had the honor of working with Paul vanMeter in 2012 and Reverend Lang in 2005. Given the nature of their projects and their leadership, our relationships with them lived well beyond our initial design work together. Their impact will live on too.
Paul vanMeter leads the way through the City Branch on a tour. Image: JJ Tiziou
Richard Roark of OLIN worked with Paul vanMeter on a conceptual master plan for the City Branch and shares these thoughts:
“I can’t tell you how shocked we were to hear of the passing of Paul. He was a well of history and imagination. I don’t think I ever encountered anyone more knowledgeable about the rail industry or the ecologic complexity of this lost world corridor. As a protégé of Oehme van Sweden it was clear his knowledge of plant communities was extensive, to say the least. He was a fascinating individual, to me, because he was willing to make creative leaps and yet was equally committed to having an almost iron clad grasp of history and precedent. How many of us could claim to be so creatively rigorous?
“I will miss hearing from him and the feeling is deeply shared among the members of our Community Design Collaborative team. I know we will all continue to be inspired by his ‘Ruderal’ dialogues; it will bring us to better places.”
Pastors Mary Moore and Martha Lang in the lobby of Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.
Dick Winston of bwa architecture + planning worked with Pastor Lang on a preliminary design for Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing. She then asked him to join the team that designed, funded, and built this affordable apartment complex. He shares this remembrance:
“Reverend Martha Lang was a teller of stories. Marvelous, long, inspirational stories. Once she told me, and I am sure she told many others, how she came to her calling while still a child in Alabama and how she held fast to that course for her entire life.
“She was a spiritual leader. She became the pastor of her own tiny flock as a young woman and nurtured Mt. Tabor AME Church’s growth for thirty-one years. She and her husband, Brother Larry Lang, founded the Christian Training Institute, which became, over the years, a region-wide resource, and she rose to leadership roles and prominence nationally in the AME Church.
“Reverend Lang was visionary. With Reverend Moore, her close collaborator and friend, she imagined a future for the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, now well on its the way to being realized: a long road to acquiring the church property and making it the heart of the community; creating food, education and economic development programs; strengthening the neighborhood; building Cyber Village to provide affordable housing for seniors in their own community; planning a neighborhood garden. As Collaborative volunteers, it was our privilege to get to know Reverend Lang over the last several years, while working on Cyber Village and, more recently, the community garden.
“Finally, she was a lover of life and of people. She seemed to find joy in everything she did and took pleasure in those around her. Her positive outlook was infectious. In her presence one could not help but feel as she did. We all achieved things because she believed we could achieve them. Her faith was absolute; her belief in her vision for her flock and community was unshakable.
Thousands returned her love and mourn her passing.”