Last Thursday, about a dozen people in a community garden in the South Kensington section of Philadelphia raised a stud wall into place, fitting it into an open-air structure resembling the skeleton of a public housing unit.
It was part of a gathering of about 50 people inaugurated this temporary site to be used for art exhibits, workshops, and meetings revolving around issues of gentrification, said Amanda Sroka, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“We are in a neighborhood here in Old South Kensington, where we’re seeing this kind of structure popping up everywhere,” said Sroka, “It’s a way for us to talk about the realities of displacement.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is in the midst of a massive, city-wide art project with a social mission. “Philadelphia Assembled” involves hundreds of artists and volunteers conducting dozens of events meant to goad city residents into new ways of imagining the future of the city.
Sroka’s task is to stay on top of a sprawling social art piece brainstormed by Jeanne van Heeswijk, a Dutch artist whose medium is not paint or clay, but people. She arrived in Philadelphia to mobilize its community organizers.
“I spent a year in deep listening with the city, where people feel they are making a difference. Whenever I spoke with somebody, I asked them to bring me to somebody else,” said van Heeswijk at the project launch last April. “For a year I moved from place to place — to houses, to gardens, talking about a changing Philadelphia, and what kind of future can we imagine collectively.”
She organized the project around five categories — what she calls “atmospheres” – Reconstructions, Sovereignty, Futures, Sanctuary, and Movement — then populated each atmosphere with artists and set them loose.
Aside from designing its structure, van Heeswijk stepped away from the details of the project, allowing it to whir and buzz by the creativity and enthusiasm of its participants. At the Kensington house raising she helped with setting up food tables and getting everyone seated, conceding control of the situation to the artists of the Reconstructions atmosphere.
The emcee of the evening event was storyteller Denise Valentine, taking the participants through house-warming rituals in an attempt to bestow this suggestion of a house (with its stud frame walls but no sheathing or roof) with the feeling of a home.
On display was a quilt commissioned from textile artist Betty Leacraft, featuring archival photographs of Kensington depicting the history of segregation redlining. It The house-raising was the also the occasion for the performance of a play.
“Neighbors?” Is a one-act by playwright Mona Washington, the first of a four-part play addressing gentrification and mass incarceration. The story is specific to this particular vacant lot in this low-income development sandwiched between Northern Liberties and Fishtown — two neighborhoods that are rapidly developing higher-income areas.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to, if nothing else, open the discussion,” said Washington. “I do admit: coming here today I stopped at a gentrified coffee shop. And it was good. I’m not sure that that says about my stance on gentrification. It’s the displacement that bothers me more than anything.”
The resulting discussions and artwork that comes out of this site and all the Philadelphia Assembled events with be re-assembled inside the Art Museum’s Perelman building, for an exhibition in the fall.