Village of Arts and Humanities

2544 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, PA, 19133, USA

What started this project: 

Arthur Hall, an African American dancer, choreographer, and teacher, came to found the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center on North 10th and Germantown Avenue, thanks to generous funding from President Johnson’s Model Cities Program. Ile Ife means, in Yoruban, “house of love”; the center was meant to serve as a welcome home for community youth to explore the role of dance and African culture. When funding from the federal government abruptly stopped, Hall looked for ways to continue the community activism and outreach through the arts that had been so successful. This opportunity came in an unexpected form, as the artist Lily Yeh, whom Hall had met at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, expressed interest in collaborating. Yeh, who already had a reputation in painting, thought that the center could sponsor art around the building, in the vacant lots that were filled with rubble, chicken wire, and crack pipes. This would not only beautify the community, but also could build new sources of funding. One of Yeh’s guiding principles has been that “beauty is a human right,” and that, to paraphrase, our humanity rests in our ability to work together to create beauty. Starting in 1968, this team set about building the neighborhood with murals, sculptures, and parks. Starting as a summer program, they created, over many years, a series of interconnected art parks, created primarily with children and residents. These parks included unique sculpture elements – benches and fences created with the detritus of the area as a fill – and colorful murals and paintings. Primary colors used throughout the spaces created consistency across the neighborhood. These activities, which grew in sophistication and scale, were done with little to no planning. The team learned as they went: making more stable sculptures and learning how to work with the community.

Goals: 

To say that the Village of Arts and Humanities ever had any discrete “goals” misleads. A four-decade-long experiment in the power of art to transform places and people, the Village has grown organically, with the care and oversight of many people and leaders, under many different histories, and with comfort in taking deliberate steps into uncertainty. However, at its core, the Village of Arts and Humanities has attempted to stunt the challenging circumstances of this neighborhood – crime, poverty, drugs - by co-creating art in the public realm. The goal was to build alternative pathways for people, pathways that could open doors to opportunity, and prosperity. As many people now realize, where we grow up and live determines many of the outcomes of our lives. These influences, negative or positive, so embedded in places, have a way of influencing our life trajectories. The Village, in its earliest, most informal incarnation, wanted to create environments and places that would give people greater chances at their fullest potential. Related to this people-based strategy, the Village also had an implicit goal of bringing power back to the people as it regarded who would create and maintain public space, and how they would do it. When it was created in the 1980s, the organization was surrounded by dwindling resources for urban America. As public support of parks, housing, and transit systems deteriorated, the Village sought to empower community members to take control of their environment in radical, sustainable, and beautiful ways. In North Philly, as in many other areas, disinvestment and vacancy had hollowed out the buildings and people of once-thriving neighborhoods. The Village wanted to turn these vacant lots into opportunities.

Results: 

The outcomes of this work, over many decades, and involving many different initiatives, are plentiful. At the most essential level, members of this North Philadelphia neighborhood benefited from and thrived because of the Village’s work. Today, the parks in The Village form a continuous network of spaces and ideas across a broad swath of the neighborhood. Instead of being focused on one parcel or property, these art parks are distributed throughout the neighborhood and create a sense of unity. Some of the parks include Angel Park, inspired by images from Ethiopia that are believed to guard the community; Meditation Park, which reflects African architecture, Chinese gardens, and Islamic courtyards; and Kujenga Pamoja Park, Swahili for “Together We Build,” which celebrates the act of building together in community. More recently, the organization partnered with Mural Arts and others to address the long-disinvested commercial corridor Germantown Road The effort, bringing vibrancy and consistency to an area, was part of a larger economic development plan sponsored by Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce and Department of Planning. Structurally speaking, one of the most significant outcomes has been the long-term development of The Village of Arts and Humanities as an organization with regular programs and initiatives. One of the more promising uses of creative placemaking is the ability to foster and create organizations that can live on to provide long-lasting support. Today, The Village has a $1 million-plus budget and a staff of more than 15. Current programming includes environmental education, park preservation, artist residencies, and community development.