Claiming Space

Community-driven art projects are helping to define and reshape neighborhood spaces in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has more public art than any other American city, so it’s no surprise that art is among the city’s most potent community development tools. Groups across the city are increasingly using art to create and animate neighborhood spaces that reflect shared community values, aspirations, and identity. And, in many cases, art can be a lasting community organizing tool.

Philly has a robust public art landscape for variety of reasons. The city is perhaps best known for its venerable Mural Arts Program, which since 1984 has developed thousands of murals in partnership with communities across the city. Philadelphia is also home to the nation’s first private, nonprofit public art association, the Association for Public Art, still active at 140 years old. In 1959 the city also established the first Percent for Art program in the country, requiring that any city-funded construction project allocate at least 1 percent of its total budget to the creation of site-specific artwork.

A Reason to Come Here

In Southwest Philadelphia, neighbors have used themes of shared heritage and community identity to reclaim a neighborhood park and add a significant new piece of public art to its landscape. That artwork has become the anchor of the park as a gathering place.

When the restoration effort got started, “Elmwood Park was a wasteland,” says lifelong neighborhood resident Cathy Brady. But you wouldn’t know it looking at the park today. In this gritty corner of the city, Elmwood Park is a seven-acre oasis with a huge variety of trees, bordered by neat single-family rowhouses.

At the park’s center, seven bronze tables arranged in a circle form The Labor Monument, a public artwork that was more than a decade in the making. The tables are designed to look like the brass buttons found on denim work clothing (think overalls), and each one depicts a transformative movement in American labor history, in the heart of a neighborhood itself shaped by industrial forces.

Elmwood was built up in the early 20th century, to provide housing for the area’s growing industrial workforce, and it became a stronghold of working-class, mostly white, union families. But in recent decades the area has seen a lot of change. Though many residents still belong to unions and there is still some industry left, most of the manufacturing jobs — building ships at Hog Island, turbines at General Electric, or trolley cars at Brill; making soap at Fels or ice cream at Breyers — are gone.

Elmwood Park itself was built in the early 20th century. But by the mid-1990s it was a derelict mess and residents like Cathy Brady were fed up. The park was overgrown and trash-strewn, baggies and needles were commonplace, paths were badly broken, and there was nowhere to sit even if you wanted to. At night the park was dark and attracted illicit activity.

Neighbors formed the Friends of Elmwood Park and started a campaign to restore the park, petitioning politicians for capital improvements and working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philly Green program. The project gelled when Elmwood Park was selected as one of few groups to participate in the competitive New•Land•Marks program, which paired community groups with artists to create new works of public art in neighborhoods.

Often public art projects focus on the here and now, but the New•Land•Marks program explicitly asked community groups to think about their neighborhood’s defining characteristics and what kind of place they wanted to leave behind for future generations to enjoy.

“It’s not just what kind of a space do we want now but for the future,” explains Penny Balkin-Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art (formerly the Fairmount Park Art Association), which runs New¥Land¥Marks. Her organization was established in 1872, and its takes a particularly long view on the permanence of public art. Through these future-oriented conversations, Balkin-Bach says, “art can be a powerful community organizing tool.”

For the Friends of Elmwood Park the New•Land•Marks program provided an incredible opportunity to improve the center of the park. In turn, the art project enabled them to attract public resources for the park’s overall improvement, and got neighbors thinking about their hopes for the park’s rebirth.

At a community meeting about the art project, neighbors discussed ideas for different themes for the artwork. Cathy Brady said she floated the winning idea of labor: “I said, ‘What about a tribute to the working class? [The Art Association wants] something to define this neighborhood … who in this room is not a blue-collar worker?’”

Brady, like many of her neighbors and friends, grew up in a union household. She was an industrial union member and now organizes for SEIU. Despite the demographic shifts in her neighborhood, the idea of a labor tribute resonated.

As the project artist, John Kindness, started design work, Friends of Elmwood Park worked on improving the park’s physical appearance to make it a fitting setting for the new public art. They convinced the city to install new paths and lighting to enhance the park’s appearance and safety. And over the last 10 years Friends of Elmwood Park has planted 163 trees, each chosen because they either flower in spring or burst with colorful foliage in autumn.

Fundraising to create The Labor Monument took years. Ultimately, a different progressive union underwrote each of the seven bronze tables, and it was dedicated in October 2010.

“This is a monument to the people, recognizing the achievements of the common person. The lady in the shirtwaist factory. The farmer. The folksinger. Sanitation workers,” Brady says, looking at the bronzes. “Obviously I’m pretty proud of it.”

The stories depicted on each table are deliberately diverse, emphasizing minorities in the workplace, with the hope of broad appeal.

They are not the most obvious labor events or movements, but each is pivotally important and meant to provoke the curiosity of passers-by. One button features Joe Hill’s famous last words: “Don’t waste time mourning, organize.” One depicting child labor says, “The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children.” On another, a farm worker draws an eagle in the field with the words Si, se puede. Two others are portraits: one of socialist leader and union organizer Eugene V. Debs and another of whistleblower and nuclear safety activist Karen Gay Silkwood. One table shows the faces of Memphis’s striking sanitation workers in 1968, bearing signs with the unforgettable phrase: “I am a man.” Brady’s favorite features female textile workers of Lawrence, Mass., arms linked, with a banner reading “We want bread & roses too.”

While these work buttons are beautiful artworks telling very human stories about work, they’re also functional. The tables are arranged in a circle and surrounded by curving benches facing inward, creating space for conversation and interaction — something the park long lacked.

As Balkin-Bach explains, The Labor Monument has high aspirations and a rich message, but ultimately they wanted it to be relatable and useful to the community. That meant the form had to be functional.

Since its completion, The Labor Monument has become a space that’s actively used by the neighborhood, and is beginning to serve as a gathering point for labor rallies on May Day as well. Elmwood Park is now a very well-kept community asset where kids romp and neighbors exercise and keep after litter.

“It’s really nice to see because it’s what we envisioned, actually happening,” says Brady. “We have couples sitting on the bench, old people sitting on the bench, a ton of kids, families visiting, which they never did. Before, there was no reason for anyone to come up to this park.”

As we sat down to talk at the Bread & Roses button, a young Southeast Asian woman interested in our conversation about the tables approached us. She wanted to know if we could help her find work or volunteer opportunities. (We tried.) As the young lady walked away with her mother, Brady exclaimed: “See, community happens here!” About work, no less.

Watering Cultural Roots

The neighborhood of El Centro de Oro, in the city’s Fairhill section, is the commercial and cultural heart of Latino Philadelphia. Here, where Puerto Rican and Latino businesses and cultural institutions line blocks of North 5th Street, metal palm trees rise above a sidewalk inlaid with a yellow ribbon of concrete. And the Latino-centric arts organization Taller Puertorriqueño (“Puerto Rican Workshop/Studio”) is right in the thick of it.

In recent decades Fairhill has been marred by the forces of disinvestment, crime, poverty, and drug activity. But Taller, a 38-year-old arts group dedicated to preserving and sharing expressions of Latino and Puerto Rican culture, is part of an energetic movement to build positive community capital for Latinos in Philadelphia and strengthen this corner of the city.

Taller’s two buildings on North 5th Street are covered with colorful murals and mosaics depicting icons of Latino culture and heritage. Inside its education building, neighborhood youths take art classes and learn about Latino, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean culture, while its building up the street houses a book and craft store, art gallery, and the organization’s offices. Here, Taller provides space for Latino-centric artistic creations and conversation that help bond the community.

“Taller preserves culture and makes space for those expressions to remain and persist,” says Taller Puertorriqueño’s executive director Dr. Carmen Febo-San Miguel. “We think that maintaining a connection to your heritage maintains a stronger sense of self.”

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project have found that communities with stronger cultural organizations tend to fare better socially and economically than those without. And in her 26 years working with Taller (12 as executive director) Febo-San Miguel has seen the positive ripple effects of Taller’s work in the Latino community, particularly among young people, that comes from building a strong cultural foundation.

“The dropout rate among Latinos is close to 50 percent in this community. That doesn’t happen in Puerto Rico,” Febo-San Miguel told me. “You wonder if it’s because those kids don’t see themselves represented anywhere in the curriculum of the schools. Nothing really speaks to them.”

But she notices that when kids are involved in Taller’s programs — even if only for a semester — they start doing a bit better.

“We see improvements academically. When they are with us they don’t miss school as much and their literacy rates start going up a little bit. They take more pride in speaking up in class, being less shy and feeling less marginalized,” Febo-San Miguel said. “We had a kid who was flunking English and he won a spelling bee contest after a couple of semesters here. We cannot claim all of the success, but the stories are there.”

Taller Puertorriqueño’s art gallery is a formal venue where emerging and established Latino artists — including former students — exhibit work curated around carefully selected social themes. Here Taller shares art that neighbors might not see anywhere else. Through spring 2013, the gallery is showing two exhibits organized around the theme of Latinos “claiming space,” both as individuals and as a community in Philadelphia.

Taller also helps organize more casual, neighborhood arts events. For 28 years running, with partner community organizations, it has hosted Ferria del Barrio, a hugely popular street festival along North 5th Street, celebrating Latino art, music, dance, and food. This year Taller also hosted “Café Under the Stars,” a monthly performing arts series that transformed a humble surface parking lot into a pop-up arts venue, thanks to a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant. Each month the well-attended series showcased different cultural expressions, from traditional Venezuelan song and dance to a cross-cultural classical music performance featuring members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and local students.

Art to Climb On

While community groups like the Friends of Elmwood Park and Taller Puertorriqueño employ art to reclaim neglected public spaces, or curate events and nonprofit gathering spaces, others have the rare opportunity to use art in shaping a new public space from scratch. In Hawthorne, a once-tough pocket east of Broad Street just south of Center City, a quartet of notorious public housing towers were demolished in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, a HOPE VI townhouse development and market-rate houses were built in the towers’ stead.

Plans for the new development originally included refurbishing the Hawthorne Community Center at 13th and Fitzwater and the construction of a small park at 12th and Catharine streets. But the old community center was demolished in favor of additional housing, and the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition had to fight the Philadelphia Housing Authority tooth and nail to prevent the same fate for the promised park, eventually petitioning the Department of Housing and Urban Development to save it.

During all of that time, Hawthorne residents thought about what they wanted in a park, working in partnership with Industrial Design students from University of the Arts.

Patricia Bullard, a leader of the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition who fought to see the park realized, recalled that some neighbors wanted a space for play and sports but she and others wanted a quieter place. She said she hoped it would be a space where people could “sit and read a book, let the little ones run around on the grass, maybe sit and play a little chess.”

After a long stalemate over the park idea, and years of community planning and civic engagement, Hawthorne Park opened in July 2012, built for about $2.1 million from public and foundation sources.

Because Hawthorne Park was a city construction project, a public art piece was created for the park through Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program. The artwork, a contemporary stainless steel lectern called Object for Expression, interprets one of Hawthorne’s points of pride: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech outside the Hawthorne Community Center in 1965 on his Freedom Now tour. Object for Expression plays off of the historical event, and “creates a place for people to continue that tradition,” explains Margot Berg, the city’s public art director.

Object for Expression sits on an elevated plaza, facing the site where King spoke, which overlooks a lush lawn. This stage-like area feels tailor-made for performances and gatherings. Bullard says the Friends of Hawthorne Park hope to host a jazz concert series and family-oriented movie evenings next summer. The park was dedicated in July and so far, Bullard said, a lot of people have expressed interest in using the park for different events, including an operatic performance and a church fair.

In this recently reengineered, increasingly desirable, mixed-income neighborhood, residents are hopeful Hawthorne Park can become a place where new and old residents can come together, in part through arts programming.

Monica and Jared Ayers are among the newer residents. They live with their young family in an old rowhouse across the street from the park. They’re thrilled with the park, though they agree that neighbors are still figuring out how to use the space. For now, students hang out there for a bit after school — some even do homework — young families like the Ayerses play, folks read, dogs enjoy a sniff around the lawn.

The artist, Warren Holzman, hoped the lectern would invite spontaneous orations about social justice or the occasional operatic aria. Bullard says she can envision Object for Expression being used for youth readings or a speech contest. For now, kids enjoy climbing onto it to survey the park from a slightly higher perch.

Like the story of the park, Object for Expression’s story is still unwritten. But in this artistic nod to the neighborhood’s history is an invitation to help craft a new narrative for Hawthorne.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.