Germantown roundtable-event speaker: ‘Artists are change-makers’

At Thursday night’s Germantown Artists Roundtable gathering at the First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Avenue, New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) Executive Director Sandy Salzman spoke about successful efforts to bring an arts-driven revitalization to Kensington’s Frankford Avenue.

Salzman highlighted Germantown’s hopes for similar improvements, illustrating that the since-resuscitated area of Kensington faced a heftier epidemic of blighted properties than Germantown currently does.

According to Salzman, who is a Germantown native, the NKCDC’s service area included 1,100 parcels of vacant land in the mid-1990s. Stores were boarded up and remaining business owners lived in fear of rampant crime.

“Frankford Avenue was desolate,” Salzman said.

A notable parallel

Founded in 1985 by the local civic association, the NKCDC first worked to address community housing needs.

Ten years later, a neighborhood initiative broadened the organization’s work to cover many quality-of-life issues including the development of local businesses, rehabbing abandoned buildings and factories, tree-and-garden plantings and an unprecedented push to meet artists’ needs with special real-estate initiatives.

Salzman spoke about the NKCDC’s Coral Street Arts House, originally a 19th-century textile mill that the organization acquired in 1999 as part of a $12 million investment in East Kensington.

Today, the formerly decaying edifice has 27 apartment units specially designed and promoted as low-income housing for artists. Seven years after its opening, 25 of those units are occupied by a variety of artists. Many former residents of the Coral Street Arts House have gone on to purchase houses in the neighborhood.

Salzman recounted the successful clean-up efforts that happened in Kensington through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, among other groups, and the resulting influx of artists seeking cheap housing.

“Artists are change-makers,” she said of the shifting neighborhood dynamic that followed.

Provide it and they will come

When the new Frankford Avenue arts district held its inaugural First Friday celebration, only three galleries were there to participate.

Now, as many formerly abandoned houses have been renovated to contain first-floor galleries with second-floor living space, the number is closer to 30. That transformation drew keen interest from the Germantown artists.

Salzman fielded questions about staffing, operations and funding from Roundtable attendees. She emphasized that the Coral Street Arts House’s success was borne by several years of complex fundraising work involving numerous city entities.

Rev. Kevin Porter of First Presbyterian Church, where Roundtable meetings have been held since their inception last winter, praised Salzman’s presentation an important example of “best practices” that could serve as a model for similar efforts in Germantown.

“These things don’t happen out of thin air,” said Porter, citing the efforts of volunteers running the committees of the Germantown Artists Roundtable’s initiatives.

Other agenda items

Thursday’s meeting, at which attendance seemingly doubled since April’s low turnout, also included an address from Germantown Life Enrichment Center board member Conni Bille, who spoke about the Germantown photo walk proposed for this summer, spearheaded by local photographer Gary Reed. Volunteers are still needed.

The meeting concluded with a presentation from local poet Terri Lyons, whose stirring, nostalgic ode to the Civil Rights era was accompanied on the bongos by playwright Karen Smith. Local artist Marie Evans demonstrated some of her work in painting, collage and fabric.

As always, organizer Paula Paul urged attendees to fill out and submit a Germantown artists survey in an effort to build a comprehensive database of local talent.

Germantown artisans or performers who wish to publicize their work through the Roundtable, or who wish to join the registry, can e-mail gtartistrt@gmail.com, or find the Roundtable on Facebook.

The next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 21.

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