by Andrew Thompson
In 2013, the Philadelphia school district shut Bok Technical High School, along with twenty-two other schools — nearly ten percent of the city’s public schools — to wipe out a budget deficit of nearly a billion-and-a-half dollars. Last month, Lindsey Scannapieco, the daughter of local high-rise developer Tom Scannapieco, closed a deal to purchase the building for 1.8 million dollars. The younger Scannapieco is the managing partner of Scout, which describes itself as a three-person “collective of young enthusiastic urban designers,” and is re-developing the Bok site. Its first use of the three-hundred-and-forty-thousand-square-foot building is Le Bok Fin, a “members only” pop-up gastropub on the school’s roof, which is running until September 13th.
On a recent Saturday evening, the line of people, which numbered in the dozens, snaked through the school’s ground-floor hallway back to the school’s entrance and past a door underneath the letters “BOYS GYMNASIUM,” not yet removed from the wall. Collages of old Bok yearbook photos had been erected in the hallway next to the elevator that carried diners and drinkers to the roof. (The word around town, on Yelp and Reddit and the food blogs, is that the view from the top of the Bok lives up to its claim as “Philly’s greatest new rooftop.”) One of the collages featured a black-and-white clipping of the school’s food service program: “‘Le Bok Fin’ instruction is given in the preparation of menus, buying good, calculating the…” The rest of the words were cut off. “Le Bok Fin” was the name of the school’s culinary arts program, itself a play on Le Bec Fin, a high-end restaurant that closed in 2013, the same year as Bok.
“We’ve been here since 1938,” a man in a black shirt standing next to the elevator told me while I looked at the collage.
“Were you a teacher here?” I asked, knowing one former Bok teacher that had struggled to find work after the closure.
“No, just working this,” he said. “That would have been awesome. This place used to be awesome, had all kinds of programs, like shop and metalworking and stuff.”
A photo posted by Mason (@masefacetheace) on Aug 30, 2015 at 9:29pm PDT
When it closed, Bok was both one of the last vocational-technical high schools in the School District of Philadelphia. While enrollment had suffered because of Philadelphia’s ongoing exodus — the city’s recent growth is due to new births, rather than influx — and from the growth of charter schools, which claim more than twice as many students today as eight years ago, Bok was one of the better-performing public high schools in a drastically underperforming district; Bok students had a thirty percent higher graduation rate than those at South Philadelphia High School, the nearby public school that absorbed many of its students.
A photo posted by Uwishunu Philly (@uwishunu) on Aug 30, 2015 at 3:07pm PDT
About twenty people crammed into the elevator and rode eight floors up to the roof looking out over the city’s expanse of rowhomes and its modest bell-curved skyline. Staples of the Philadelphia breed of pop-up beer garden were all there: cans of Yards and Allagash and Dogfish Head, cheese plates, beef tartare, and Paris Dogs. Atop the roof, scores of people milled about, commenting on the view and taking pictures of the skyline. Past the booth to order food and drinks, people sat underneath a gazebo in chairs taken from the classrooms below. The tiny tables had chalkboard surfaces which could be drawn on with chalk placed in chemistry beakers at each table, a nod to Bok’s science program; people played tic-tac-toe and drew pictures of cats. A larger chalkboard on the side of the booth asked, “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE AT BOK?” People had written their answers underneath using the chalk from the beakers: “Gelateria,” “Café–(Lavazza),” “Green house,” “Taco truck,” “Pizzeria.” As I looked at the responses, a young blonde woman wearing a white summer dress walked up with a piece of chalk, wrote, “BB-Q Joint,” and returned to her friends.
A photo posted by Kevin (@kevinmulh) on Aug 29, 2015 at 10:59pm PDT
The building is one of the city’s artifacts from the New Deal, a structure of Deco regality built by the Works Progress Administration to house public education. According to Scout’s website, it plans to turn it into “a new and innovative center for Philadelphia creatives.” Vague, but there has been more specific talk of making Bok the largest “makerspace” (a mix of workshops, studios, and co-working options) in the city; last year, shortly after Scannapieco began the acquisition process, she told NextCity that it “has always been a space of working and learning and that’s so embedded in the structure of the building,” which is “something we’ll really honor, preserve and continue.” In March, Scout won a hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars from the Knight Foundation to turn Bok into “South Philly’s Stoop,” which will “include a community stoop, a new bus shelter for the 47 bus along 9th Street, a bike pump and repair station and a new-and-improved dog park.” Scout is currently taking leasing applications for “Building Bok.” (No one from Scout returned requests for comment on its plans for the building.)
A photo posted by Janan Rajeevikaran (@jananrajeevikaran) on Aug 29, 2015 at 7:07pm PDT
Over the course of three hours, wave after wave of people came from the elevator so that by sunset the roof teemed with what seemed like three hundred bodies. People lining the edge of the roof continued taking indistinct photos of the skyline with their smartphone. “Total sidenote, that view is so fucking beautiful,” one woman said to her friend, pausing in their conversation. There was a flag waving in the wind atop the former school’s flagpole. It was emblazoned with a graphic based on the capitals of the building’s column-like protrusions, a quintessential Deco accent of five bars in increasing and descending size, the tallest in the middle. Tote bags with the logo were available for ten dollars.
Correction: Le Bec-Fin never had a Michelin star, much less three. We regret the error!