Friend of AN and Slought Foundation executive director Aaron Levy sends the following dispatch from his “Repurpose!” event from last weekend:
When the Into the Open exhibition moved in to the National Constitution Center and the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia in July after stints in New York and before that Venice, where it was last year’s Biennale entry (curated by myself, Andrew Sturm, and AN founding editor William Menking), we decided we wanted to do some community outreach in the spirit of the civic activism promoted by the architects and designers in the exhibition. And so, with the help of the National Constitution Center, the Slought Foundation, and the Community Design Collaborative, we presented “Repurpose!,” a one-day community workshop and design competition highlighting the creative possibilities of urban revitalization in the Mantua neighborhood in West Philadelphia.
The photos you see on this page were all taken during the Repurpose event, during which we built a canopy of rope and recycled plastic bottles with people from the neighborhood. The design was based on the geometry of common laundry lines and provided shade and festivity for the day’s events. We collected over 1500 plastic bottles for the canopy from business owners in the neighborhood, nearby churches, the National Constitution Center, and the Philadelphia Phillies stadium, and it is in this sense that we like to think of the bottles as representing Philadelphia itself
The canopy project was a collaboration between architects Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss (Normal Architecture Office), Brian Phillips (Interface Studio Architects), and Lindsay Bremner of Temple University. Repurpose took place on a vacant lot at 611-627 N. 40th Street. The number of such abandoned lots in Philadelphia is estimated to exceed 30,000, while the number of abandoned houses exceeds 50,000. The lot we used for Repurpose is currently slated to become Jannie’s Place, the site of new affordable housing units named after Philadelphia City Council member Jannie L. Blackwell, who spoke at the event along with Gloria Guard, president of the People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corporation, an outreach group serving West Philadelphia that co-sponsored the event.
Over the course of the day, we learned that a crowd of 10,000 people had gathered here in 1965 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hail the growing Civil Rights movements across the country. A video of that speech from the Scribe Video Center was screened later in the day. Earlier that morning we also participated in a community workshop titled “What is affordable housing?” led by Rosten Woo and Christine Gaspar of the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn.
Throughout the course of the day we distributed over 70 recycling bins to the neighborhood, in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. As part of the day’s events, we also placed a 1500-pound block of crushed plastic bottles, courtesy of Blue Mountain Recycling, in front of the People’s Emergency Center’s Rowan House headquarters, to show the community what happens to their recyclables after it is picked up from the curb and deposited at the sorting facility.
While the structure that Srdjan, Brian and Lindsay devised was obviously a physical one, we also like to think of it as a social structure, in that it brought together for the first time we can remember in Philadelphia a remarkable collaboration of non-profits, city agencies, architects and individuals. We hope that the project leads to more like-minded initiatives to literally “repurpose” vacant lots throughout the city, and in so doing to re-imagine Philadelphia’s future.