Recap: Germantown United CDC’s Sustainability Forum, Zack Bird is the Man

We had a great time talking about neighborhood revitalization and citizen engagement projects at Germantown United CDC‘s second annual forum last week. While sharing our work was fun, it was equally cool for us to learn about other projects in Philadelphia. Zack Bird’s DIY anti-graffiti campaign was particularly inspiring, and we could relate to his remarks about why he does it (see below). After reading Inquirer columnist Karen Heller’s story about his paintings in the Wissahickon, you’ll probably want to pick up a paint brush and join him in the park, too. He has quickly achieved philebrity status in our book! We couldn’t actually wait until after the panel to tweet about him –

If you missed the program, check out Luke Smith’s recap of the event below, which includes a summary of Zach’s talk and our contribution. For more, see Germantown-based photographer Tieshka Smith’s collection of photos or check out stories in The Philadelphia TribuneNewsWorksWHYYFlying Kite, and the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog. – Aine & Emaleigh

Guest blog post by A. Luke Smith | Board Member of Germantown United CDC

About a hundred people turned out at the Flying Horse Center last Wednesday evening, May 8, 2013, to attend Germantown United CDC’s Second Annual “Forum on Sustainability,” which featured a “trade show” followed by a panel discussion where attendants learned how “it IS easy being green!”

Aine representing Tree Germantown. You want a tree, right?

Aine representing Tree Germantown. You want a tree, right?

The projector displayed a tuxedo-wearing Kermit the Frog to welcomed guests to the beautiful space at the Flying Horse Center, where various organizations and city offices engaged face to face with interested Germantowners.  Derrick Searles of the Streets Department’s Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee informed visitors that anyone can host a block cleanup and,  with just an advanced phone call,  the city will gladly come and pick up all of the trash and debris the same day.   The Sustainable Business Network recruited Germantown business owners and entrepreneurs to join the citywide network of businesses committed to the business ethos embodied in what they call “the triple bottom line,” or “Profits, People, Planet,” a concept that was repeated later during the forum discussion.  Attendees bounced between tables hosted by local urban farms like Grumblethorpe, organizations like The Food Trust dedicated to bringing that healthy fresh food to Philadelphians living without access to it, and a prison-to-work program called “Roots to Re-entry” that gives prison inmates the opportunity to learn urban farming in the prison’s rehabilitated green house.  There were too many fantastic organizations and agencies to list here (see the pre-event flyer for that).  So many, in fact, it was a challenge to get interested Germantowners to leave the tabling area and take their seats at the forum!

Once seated, the audience listened intently as each of the seven panelists shared presentations and spoke passionately for 20 minutes about their work, and the work of their respective agencies and organizations.

Keynote Speaker and discussion moderator Robert Fleming, founder of Philadelphia University’s MS in Sustainable Design Program, posed the first question to the panelists:  “Most peoples’ objective in life is to make enough money to live as comfortable as possible.  But you guys are special.  What makes you tick?”

After a moment of humble silence, acclaimed graffiti-fighting Muralist Zack Bird was the first panelist to chime in.  “I actually have a good answer to that,” he began.  “In my work for Palm Restaurants, I’ve had the chance to travel around the county building restaurants.  I spent up to a month on each job, and so I’ve gotten to know a lot of American cities.  But when I recently returned to northwest Philadelphia, I really rekindled my love affair with this place, especially with the natural beauty of the Wissahickon, and the history. I’ve found that it’s really a unique place, and I wanted it to be beautiful. And so a while ago I made a commitment to pick up litter anytime I see it.”

“At first I thought I was doing a favor to the community by picking up trash.  But I was thinking about this recently, and I’m really doing a bigger favor to myself.  Whether it’s picking up litter, or faux-finishing to restore a tagged up retaining wall in the Wissahickon, it just makes me feel great, like I’m floating on a cloud.  So I guess that’s why I do it. That’s what makes me tick.” 

Every panelist applauded in agreement to Zack’s response.

Zack Bird paints away graffiti and recreates stone.

Zack Bird might be a magician.

Then the audience queued up for questions and comments.  Audience member Lisa Hopkins of the Civic Association Southwest Lower Germantown wondered whether The Food Trust had considered bringing back something like the home economics classes she remembered from her own school days, because teaching young adults how to cook, clean, and sew could be a key to healthy, sustainable living.  While Dwayne Wharton said that his organization’s connection to schools is to help bring in healthy food, he thought the idea was a good one.

A Germantown-based, nationally-renown ceramic tile artist/businesswoman, Karen Singer of Karen Singer Tileworks, pitched the panel and audience her idea to design and install a thematic series of ceramic tile murals around the community, and a walking tour to visit them.

Ernie Freeman of Germantown Community Connection applauded New Haven, Connecticut’s innovative approach to corridor renewal called “Project Storefronts”, and had some practical questions for its Director, panelist Vivan Nabeta (we’d all love to see this program replicated in Philadelphia!).

Susan Gilfillan, a retired realtor, offered panelists Aine and Emaleigh Doley the comfort of knowing that when she moved to Germantown in the 1970s, there was a group of hippies trying to fix up West Rockland Street, assuring the Doleys’ that their effort was one with “deep roots.”  She also blamed what she called “lazy and corrupt government,” for many of Germantown’s, perhaps most notably the enormous amount of unpaid property taxes.

In response, panelist Christine Knapp from the Philadelphia Water Department was quick to defend her department which she joined just 6 months ago, and cautioned against broad generalizations.  She said she would not have taken the job if she expected to be working with anyone lazy or corrupt and that, to the contrary, she’s found that at the PWD she is “surrounded by a bunch of over-achievers.”

The Doley sisters responded to the charges of government laziness and corruption with two practical reminders.  First, it’s smart to maintain relationships with your elected officials, because they can get things done, and the way to hold them accountable to their constituents is by engaging them, not by calling them lazy and corrupt and dis-engaging.  Aine Doley gave the example of Mayor Nutter showing up at their door the day after the Philadelphia Inquirer ran this story in the Sunday paper about their “Grow This Block” initiative, including a focus on the city-owned blight that has blemished their block for at least 20 years.  The Mayor asked the sisters for a tour of the block, and within five days demolition of the blighted properties was underway.

The Doleys’ second reminder relates to the first:  laziness and corruption in government doesn’t prevent neighbors from coming together to work, to organize block-wide cleanups, help each other to undertake DIY home improvement projects, plant flowers, and grow healthy food.  The Doley sisters repeatedly emphasized that theirs is just a group of neighbors that meet and discuss ideas to improve the quality of life on their block.  They’re not affiliated with any organization or politicians.  They don’t have a non-profit organization.  But none of that stopped them from dramatically beautifying their block, making national news,  becoming a well-worn campaign stop, or even earning a morning drop-in from the mayor of Philadelphia.  The sisters said it’s just a matter of getting organized, putting a well-planned proposal in writing, and reaching out to the city for help collaborating with the right programs and groups to get it done.

Robert Fleming closed the panel by rejecting the notion that “revitalization” was necessary in Germantown.  He said everywhere he looks he sees that “Germantown is full of vitality.”  In Germantown there are always new examples of diverse people connecting and working together which, Rob says, is quite unusual.

Fleming parted with two hints for success: “baby steps and dandruff.”

“Baby steps” because all sustainable progress is a series of them — dreaming is great, but making dreams reality is a continuous and incremental process of doing.  And “dandruff” because, as we all know, this work usually involves working with other people, and groups of people.  And sometimes people spend more energy fighting over who is in charge, instead of working on moving forward, together.  He advised everyone to “check their ego at the door,” and if some people get bogged down in name-calling and bickering, “just brush it off your shoulder and keep moving forward.”


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