Why parts of West Philly not getting the boost from attracting artists
The West Philadelphia neighborhoods of Mantua and Powelton Village have a surprisingly large arts sector, says a new study by Drexel University. But that arts sector is underutilized.
“It’s not surprising that there are a lot of artists clustered around Drexel and the Science Center — these knowledge, creative enterprises,” said co-author Andrew Zitzer, an arts adminstration professor at Drexel. “When we started to go out into the field we realized it was much more widespread.”
Zitzer and his team began by using CultureBlocks, an application developed by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy that creates maps based on data scraped from a range of city agencies. Then they assembled a team to conduct in-person surveys of residents in the neighborhoods.
The study, “A Fragile Ecosystem: The Role of Arts and Culture in Philadelphia’s Mantua, Powelton Village, and West Powelton Neighborhoods,” found a comparable number of resident artists as in more popular art-hub neighborhoods, such as Northern Liberties and Old City where development followed artists, ultimately pricing out some longtime residents.
That has not happened in West Philadelphia, where art-school graduates did not flock there in droves. Rather, they have always been there.
“When you look at the data, they are working middle class and lower middle class, professionally, which are the glue,” said Zitzer. “As opposed to the image of artists coming into a neighborhood, forcing out residents and paving the way for development, what we see more often is that artists are people who want to live inexpensively and are small entrepreneurial businesspeople trying to make a living. They can be very supportive of a neighborhood.”
Despite the large population of artists, the study found the arts sector in Mantua and Powelton Village is relatively weak, as neighborhood schools and non-profits are not tapping into that cultural resource. There is a lack of communication between artists and organizations, said Zitzer, making it difficult for public schools and civic associations to develop strategies that leverage local cultural resources.
Generally, the report shows a lack of public investment. While organizations surrounding Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania have robust programs supported by their respective deep pockets, areas deeper into the neighborhoods have few cultural resources at their disposal.
Exceptions include Spiral Q, a longtime puppet-making workshop that actively cultivates relationships with community groups, and the People’s Emergency Center, which hosts the Mighty Writers program in Hawthorne Hall on Lancaster Avenue.
“The whole notion of an ecosystem says you need to support both to have a healthy, diverse, robust arts community, which is symptomatic of a health broad community” said Zitzer.
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