Uncovering the Human Landscape in North Philadelphia
Sally Harrison, Temple University
Every culture proliferates along its margins … Bubbling out of swamps and bogs, a thousand flashes at once scintillate and are extinguished all over the surface of a society. In the official imaginary, they are noted only as exceptions or marginal events … In reality, creation is a disseminated proliferation. It swarms and throbs. A polymorphous carnival infiltrates everywhere… —Michel de Certeau
Looking north from the ninth floor studio, my students and I gaze over a gridded landscape that extends for miles until it merges with the horizon. We see a fabric that is regular and monochromatic, dominated by brick row houses and punctuated by the sweep of rail lines, patches of bulky nineteenth century industrial structures and vacant land. In the near middle ground, just beyond the embankment for the trains that connect the university with the center city and suburbs, are two public housing towers. I ask the students to look just to the right of the towers and to the ground. There a spot of brilliant cerulean blue comes into focus.
Tiny in relation to the terrain within our scope of vision, this flash of color—the fragment of a mural—connects us to a specific place that will emerge as the locus of an on-going service-learning project undertaken by Temple University architecture students. The mural is the most visible landmark of the Village of Arts and Humanities, a unique art-based enclave in the Hartranft/Fairhill community only six blocks from the dense and busy urban campus of Temple University.
In spite of being under the gaze of the architecture building, North Philadelphia's neighborhoods have figured little in the mental maps of the students. Mostly the students sustain a generalized concept of the decaying urban context: an undifferentiated, troubling landscape, functioning on the margins of their studio-focused life. But the Village of Arts and Humanities and the community where it is situated has inspired our imagination. A self-built network of parks and gardens woven into the interstices of North Philadelphia's deteriorating residential fabric, the Village asserts that decay and loss open the possibility for beauty and innovation. This particular place and the polymorphous carnival of everyday life that infiltrates it have offered to the students a complex local narrative, and a threshold for learning about design in the contemporary city.
Walking in the City, Seeing, and Connecting
From the architecture school, students now regularly tread a path north to the Village of Arts and Humanities. With this ritual, they craft a continuous spatial bond that connects their experiences of the university and the neighborhood, expanding if not erasing boundaries. Up 12th Street they walk past the newish housing that abuts the campus, and as they approach the city recreation center, they see the basketless hoops and cracked concrete pavement. They pass a stretch of row homes that stand in various states of disrepair across the street from an imposing stone railroad embankment. Through the underpass, they emerge into the open space of Fotteral Square; the two high-rise housing towers we can see from the studio stand at its south. The students cut diagonally across the square.
Turning onto tiny Warnock Street between a prolific vegetable garden and the local bar, the Village of Arts and Humanities unfolds in the ellipses of the residential fabric. First, they see a field of colorful posts against a mural of angels. Facing it, there is a row of abandoned row houses painted white, waiting. Halfway up Warnock is a sign announcing another Community Garden, but it is densely overgrown with honeysuckle, and we can't see inside. Across from it is a well-tended flower garden bounded by a tiled mural. The students proceed up the street—a continuous wall of brick homes, some abandoned, some with people chatting at their stoops—and they pass between two abandoned houses into a tiny walled park, all hardscape with a floor like a mosque, that connects them mid-block to Alder Street. Like Warnock, Alder is small in scale, though better maintained and active; people walk down the middle of the street or move purposefully from building to building.
At its far end, the monumental cerulean blue mural stands, the backdrop of a public park, shady and filled with mosaic sculpture. On a stage at the base of the mural, a group of teenagers are coached in step-dancing routine. Beyond, the bustle of Germantown Avenue can be seen and felt—sunlight and motion, the music from a passing car, the metallic clatter of security gates opening, the acrid smell of blue exhaust from the Number 23 bus. Around the park side of the building, the students step out to the sidewalk; they have reached the official front door of the Village of Arts and Humanities, a ninteenth-century storefront at a bend on Germantown Avenue. The neighborhood commercial street with its variety stores, clothing shops, take-outs, check-cashing establishments stretches north, faltering, uneven, but still gathering and focusing community life.
The Village of Arts and Humanities and Shared Prosperity
The Temple students have joined the scores of neighborhood residents, artists, and activists who have participated in the building of the Village since it started as a single public art project over two decades ago. The Ile Ife Park was built over three summers by the artist Lily Yeh in several vacant lots with the help of neighborhood children, and framed by a monumental mural on the three-story blank party wall of 2544 Germantown Avenue. The Village evolved organically, reaching into and transforming the fragmented physical space of the neighborhood. Seventeen parks and gardens were constructed for public use, and six abandoned buildings on Alder Street and the building on Germantown Avenue were rehabilitated to house after-school arts programs and workshops. Committed to the belief that creative engagement in place can change lives, Yeh engaged neighborhood residents in the land transformation process. Two recovering drug addicts with natural artistic gifts became her chief support. Together, their presence in the neighborhood as productive, skilled craftsmen and mentors tacitly communicated that renewal can be found in even the most degraded conditions.