Philadelphia’s changing — South Philly especially. As Center City and University City max out at their development capacities, the sprawl’s heading south. What are we to do about it? How can we brace ourselves for the next decade of shifting neighborhood dynamics in a way that’s inclusive, not exclusive? And how can we effectively welcome communities to the table whose primary language isn’t English? These are a few of the questions that Mural Arts Project (MAP) is going after with a new project based out of a rented empty lot on 632 Jackson St. called Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge.
“We rented it from the lot owner and the lot owner lives in South Philadelphia” but not in the immediate vicinity, reported MAP project manager Shari Hersh.
They arrived there in mid-May and will engage the immediate communities through September. The lot, technically, has no playground, and it’s not really a park — it’s closed off except for when it’s in use. But there are plenty of opportunities to use the space, and MAP’s still ironing out the fine print.
“We’re going to have people be able to use it, we’ll have someone come unlock it for them and lock it when they go [but] people are always welcome if anyone’s in there,” Hersh explained.
On Monday, they held an “action,” a phrase they’re using to describe the multiple spats of scheduled programming that aim at enriching community-building efforts and opening dialogues between seemingly disparate citizens. Actions strive to expose and emphasize “useful knowledge,” a phrase being used to articulate the ways in which citizens may have loads of helpful information that they’re both not sharing with near neighbors and could benefit many if they shared.
“People have so many strengths, but the community is fractured by language and ethnicity, and this is a project about helping the community imagine pathways to getting [successful outcomes],” Hersh said.
This project’s a big collaborative effort and not just on behalf of MAP and residents of Whitman and Pennsport. A big partner is Cohabitation Strategies, an international architecturally-concerned agency that specializes in protecting and bolstering communities endangered by greed, gentrification and unjust public policy that favors the rich.
Members of the Cohabitation Strategies team have been interviewing residents to ask them about their lives, hopes and concerns for the neighborhood. Hersh says they contain thoughts on “their relationships to the different communities and how that makes them feel and what they dream about, what they’d like to see happen — some people talk about a lack of green space and a desire for greater green spaces.”
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is involved, too. It has provided some funding, and Italian artist Lucia Sanroman’s an independent curator who was asked by Mural Arts to audit their successes and propose projects that would more successfully engage communities.
“In 2013, Pew gave Mural Arts a very interesting grant that was focused on inviting three art curators to come and see and assess their art practices as well as suggest new programs,” Sanroman said. “I invited artists, urban planners, thinkers, and intellectuals to come to Philadelphia for the year and to sort of do an urban mapping to discuss what area of Philly could be best served with engagement and how that could be achieved. Play is a powerful tool, and the concept of useful knowledge is also powerful.”
Beth McConnell is the policy director at the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC), and she lives on the 2000 block of South Darien Street. Mural Arts reached out to McConnell as a nearby neighbor and for her expertise in community engagement.
“The way that they approached me about it initially was we’re a group of artists from around the world that care deeply about civic participation and the creation of art but art that’s about something that’s happening in neighborhoods and communities,” McConnell said. “So not just art for art’s sake — art with a purpose.”
Certainly, that’s part of MAP’s heritage: from graffiti removal, working with former prisoners, art education and community-engaged mural projects. But this is a project whose goal isn’t necessarily a piece of public art.
“Their goal of using art as a way to engage people is a really accessible way to get folks around the table as opposed to ‘Hey, everybody, let’s go have a meeting about gentrification,’” McConnell joked. “I think as the city is changing so much in so many different neighborhoods; new immigrants are moving in, people with wealth and developers who want to invest are moving in and they’re looking for the next neighborhood, the next place to go now that Center City and University City are built up and expanding. People in this neighborhood see change coming, and they want to be a part of that change.”
Cohabitation Strategies’ Miguel Robles-Duran and Emiliano Gandolfi were at Monday’s action and spoke about how architecture and policy can threaten communities.
“One of the main principles of our organization is to look for ways of developing without displacement — we believe that can happen. Old neighborhoods can be transformed,” Robles-Duran said.
“It’s a matter of urban policy and what policy is catering to. The policy that Philadelphia has created around housing and development” is catered to the wealthy, he noted. “This is completely unjust and unfair, and there are much more balanced ways of growing a city. We’ve seen them historically.” The idea that “gentrification is natural, we don’t buy it. It’s produced by politicians, bankers and developers.”
Their investigations report approximately 300 empty lots in the area, most of them privately owned, and the hope is that they’re not all handed over to folks from outside of the neighborhood or city.
“These lots are disappearing but not for the type of development that people would like to see,” the planner added. “The analysis we have done in this neighborhood — in five years it’s going to be absolutely transformed.”
Hersh encourages anyone in the neighborhood, especially community groups seeking a space to commune, to call her cell MAP cell phone (267-972-3944) to request access. There are urban ecology/gardening workshops on the last Saturday of every month, youth art classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings (July 22 to Aug. 27), and a big art action event planned for Sept. 19.
Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117.