Mapping the cultural assets of Chester in story form [photos]

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Members of the City Council in Chester, Delaware County, gave up their seats so that an acting ensemble could take the floor. Mayor  John Linder relinquished his chair, moving into the spectators section of Council chambers.

Four actors — half of the Chester Made Ensemble — performed excerpts of a play about arts and culture in Chester. The play is based on interviews with residents who were asked about cultural experiences they had in the city. Those experiences were then pinpointed on a map.

“Instead of just creating a two-dimensional map based on research and surveys, we used storytelling and theater as a way to capture the data to go on the map,” intoned actor Lamaar Todd.

He then threw the line to his colleague Don Newton.

“In this way, we were able to use community voices and experiences as the heart of the map,” said Newton. “Stories are data with soul.”

Both the play and the map are the results of an 18-month project, Chester Made, to find out what Chester has to offer culturally. They came out of an extensive engagement process, whereby local actors were trained to facilitate interviews with their neighbors.

Initially focused on the “Chester Cultural Corridor” (Avenue of the States, between City Hall and Widener University), the interviews revealed arts-related discoveries, revelations, and epiphanies were happening all over the city.

“This is stuff that needs to be at the heart of revitalizing Chester, but not enough people know that it’s happening,” said Lisa Jo Epstein, the director of the theater company Just Act, which facilitated the interview process. “By putting the personal into the theatrical, the community was able to re-see their own strengths.”

Chester is a city in trouble. Much of the downtown is boarded up, and it is often listed as one of America’s most dangerous cities. The presence of Harrah’s Casino and the 5-year-old soccer stadium, PPL Park, has done little change that.

A route to energizing Chester’s downtown

The cultural assets map is meant to tell a different story to both outsiders and city’s own residents.

“At first, when we looked at a map to see where A&C happens, we saw only one of two places on the map,” said Laurie Zierer, director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, a partner in the project. “There is arts and culture in the fabric of this community. It has to come from the ground up to see what’s important and what people value.”

The Cultural Assets map includes a downtown art gallery, a video production company, a couple small performance spaces, and a bronze sculpture foundry.

It also includes things that may be a stretch to call cultural assets, including a juice bar and a doughnut shop.

Phatso’s Bakery, at Welsh and Sixth Streets, was once featured on the Food Network show, “Save My Bakery.” It’s been a doughnut shop for generations, for the last 15 years owned and operated by Richard Wilcox.

Wilcox was involved in the initial planning stages of Chester Works, when it was still called Chester Cultural Corridor. He would like to see the Cultural Assets map leveraged to activate the downtown.

“More businesses, more activity downtown, more people — it’s a good thing,” said Wilcox. “If you don’t know what we have to offer, you would breeze right on by.”

In 2012, Chester’s City Council established a comprehensive city plan, which called for the development of the city’s cultural sector. Without a firm idea of what that sector is, the city has not been able to act on that promise.

“You have to start with something to gain momentum,” said Paul Fritz, an architect and consultant with Chester’s city planning department. “This was a good way to inventory Chester’s assets as far as arts and culture goes, to leverage future grant funds or future art projects.”

One of the low-hanging fruits is the revitalization of the long-neglected Deshong Park, former site of the Deshong mansion and art museum. Despite being taking over by the county, the park remains only partially accessible.

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