Tag Archives: Northwest Philadelphia

Lots of Possibility: Grassroots vacant lot project with Mural Arts Program underway in Germantown

One of the biggest issues facing W Rockland Street has been managing the block’s new public spaces. In 2014, Aine and I submitted a proposal to the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program aimed at improving conditions within the vacant lot on the corner of W Rockland Street and Greene Street. We are excited to announce it was approved! The project is now underway and will be completed during the summer months of 2015.

Lot at the corner of W Rockland Street & Greene Street

Lot at the corner of W Rockland Street & Greene Street

The proposed project aims to activate and beautify the vacant lot. The highly visible location makes it possible to further the connection between neighboring blocks around W Rockland and bolster what we’re building here. Improvements will include light landscaping and features that help to break-up the space, making it easier to maintain and inviting use; the installation of a community message board; new plantings and flowers; and a mural on the facade of the last house of W Rockland Street. The mural, visible from Greene Street, will face the open space. The project may also include other interventions developed during the community engagement process.

We hope to make our grassroots neighborhood revitalization efforts more sustainable by turning this vacant space into a safe place for residents.

The project is designed to be temporary but durable and accomadate long-term temporary use, in this period between blight and possible redevelopment.

It will also be accessible and costs will be kept low, so that the ideas put in place here can be easily replicated by anyone elsewhere – from your average D-I-Y citizen to grassroots community groups like ours.

Zoom around this Google Map of the space and get a lay of the land. 4819 Greene is owned by the City of Philadelphia; 4817 Greene is privately owned by the tax delinquent and missing-in-action Church of God by Faith; and 4815 Greene is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Special shoutout to the lady crossing the street in the satellite image!

THE WALL

Michelle Oosterbaan, a contemporary artist working with the Mural Arts Program, will paint the mural. Oosterbaan is currently working on the color pallet and mural concept, after meeting with residents and talking about the ideas and things they would like the mural to evoke. Her abstract mural at Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology (PCAT) in West Oak Lane is what first caught our eye.

The mural will add beauty and brightness to Southwest Germantown and link the houses on W Rockland and Greene. The side-wall of the house where the mural will be painted was previously blocked by the abandoned properties that once stood on Greene Street, and now has a new audience.

Kevon flies a paper airplane in October 2013 in front of 74 W Rockland St, where the mural will be installed.

Kevon flies a paper airplane in October 2013 in front of 74 W Rockland St, where the mural will be installed.

Michelle Oosterbaan’s “Pulse” at Philadelphia Center for Art and Technology, a collaboration with the Mural Arts Program.

EMPOWERING D-I-Y CITIZENS

Many people think maintaining vacant land is really the city’s responsibility, and that might be true. But shouldn’t it be easier for residents who want to care for and reimagine these spaces? With this project, we think we can make it easier.

It seems kind of bonkers that the solution for community-managed vacant land tends to go from keeping lots litter free and the grass mowed, to community gardens and urban farms, with little in-between. A fence around a vacant lot is sometimes not enough. And let’s face it, community gardens are hard – we know this because we built one in another vacant lot at the top of our block. We want to uncover more creative in-between uses for vacant lots that can be done on the cheap. 

At the same time, there are many residents living in Philly neighborhoods, like ours, that lack resources and organizational capacity to take on this kind of project from scratch. We think they just need a how-to. 

Every part of this project will be documented and shared online here at rocklandstreet.com for anyone to adapt or copy what we’ve tried, without having to reinvent the wheel. We’ll post tips for getting neighborhood participation, detailed instructions for how to create anything we build for the lot, clever fundraising tactics, and more.

OFF THE WALL

Interestingly, this wide open space is a relatively new addition to our neighborhood fabric, thanks to the demolition of two abandoned rowhouses that towered over the community, some say for over 20 years.

It wasn’t until June 2011 that the footprints of the looming three-story houses (4815 Greene and 4817 Greene St) joined the adjacent overgrown lot (4819 Greene), already a popular illegal dump site.

The story of how that happened is not exactly typical.

Over Memorial Day Weekend in 2011, Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter paid a surprise visit to the block to see the Grow This Block! garden project – a day on which over 30 households on W Rockland St planted fruit, veggie, herb, and flower gardens in their front yards. The Mayor had read an article by Inga Saffron about the planting project in The Philadelphia Inquirer and showed up with the newspaper in-hand. It was then that he toured the block and saw the condition of the abandoned properties.

Wildness. Google Maps image of the space in 2008.

Wildness. Google Maps image of the space in 2008.

L&I had already declared the buildings imminently dangerous, after a re-inspection requested by the community. But within days of the Mayor’s visit, the demolition was scheduled.

“When neighbors are trying to make something happen, we, the city, have to meet them halfway,” Mayor Nutter told the Inquirer.

What happened next is perhaps more typical.

After the houses were demolished (yay!) the lot was left unprotected without a fence, and the ground remained a sandy pit with bits and pieces of rock and concrete from the houses (doh!). Soon cars and trucks began parking in the lot and illegal dumping returned. Navigating what to do next was challenging.

By 2013, it was clear we had to find an alternative use for the vacant lot and work to turn the space into something that neighbors could enjoy. We began with simple beautification projects. We also hosted community events in the lot, including yard sales and a kids Halloween party.

The bottom of the block began to look and feel differently. It began to look like a space people cared about.

The question now is how to make more people care about this vacant lot (and others around the city), which is a big part of what this project is all about.

LOTS OF POSSIBILITY

Taking action
2009 – 2011
In 2009, residents on W Rockland St began organizing cleanups of the lot and the abandoned properties, working to maintain the area and put an end to illegal dumping.  Philly Spring Cleanup, April 4, 2009.

In 2009, residents on W Rockland St began organizing cleanups of the abandoned properties, working to maintain the space and put an end to illegal dumping. Philly Spring Cleanup, April 4, 2009.

4819 Greene St after W Rockland St Project’s Philly Spring Cleanup 2009 project in which the lot was cleaned.

4819 Greene St after W Rockland St Project’s Philly Spring Cleanup 2009 project in which the lot was cleaned.

4819, 4817, 4815 Greene St after W Rockland St Project’s Philly Spring Cleanup 2009 project in which the lot was cleaned and graffiti was removed from the front of the houses.

4819, 4817, 4815 Greene St after W Rockland St Project’s Philly Spring Cleanup 2009 project in which the lot was cleaned and graffiti was removed from the front of the houses.

Demolition of 4817 and 4815 Greene St in June 2011, funded by the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), managed by the Redevelopment Authority.

Demolition of 4817 and 4815 Greene St in June 2011, funded by the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), managed by the Redevelopment Authority.

W Rockland St's very own sand lot. The condition  of the lot after the demolition of the houses in June 2011.

W Rockland St’s very own sand lot. The condition of the lot after the demolition of the houses in June 2011.

Germantown Beach. Kids play in the sand lot in September 2011.

Germantown Beach. Kids play in the sand lot in September 2011.

An evolving space
2012 – 2015

GET INVOLVED

If you’re interested in helping make this project happen and supporting The W Rockland Street Project, there are lots of opportunities to get involved.

Our first community meeting was held on Monday, June 22 at the steps of the DePaul Catholic School. Join us at the next one (date TBD) and contact us if you have immediate questions.

We will be working to increase communication and engagement with residents of the 4800 block of Greene St, who face the vacant lot, the flanking 100 blocks of Logan St and Wyneva St, the 4800 block of Germantown Ave, and other surrounding blocks.

Sign-up for our email list! Keep up with The W Rockland Street Project! We’ll send very occasional emails with stories from the block, along with updates about our vacant lot project with Mural Arts Program.


Full disclosure: Emaleigh Doley is currently working on the Mural Arts Program’s citywide public art exhibition Open Source (coming October 2015) as a programming consultant. The idea and development of this project however predates that engagement. 

Germantown’s 21st century struggles (and triumphs) on display in new exhibit at the Historical Society

How did a fence riddled with musket ball holes from the American Revolutionary War and an old wooden rake come to symbolize Germantown’s 21st century struggles with blight, poverty and gun violence?

This summer, visitors to the Germantown Historical Society will see a curious display of hand-picked objects from residents of the neighborhood alongside the permanent collection. In the mix are two pieces that my sister Aine and I discovered in the basement storage rooms.

The Historical Society is experimenting with the concept of community curation. The museum and research center, dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the original German Township in Northwest Philadelphia, invited seven Germantowners to explore its vast collection of 20,000+ objects and select items from the archives for the public exhibition, Claiming Our Place: Inhabit Germantown.

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

Participants were asked “to instigate dialogue – to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves or others ideas and issues important to us as a neighborhood, past, present and future.”

The creative endeavor was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage under the auspices of the “No Idea is Too Ridiculous” program – which is definitely true in this case.

On our quest for exhibition objects, the Historical Society’s Barbara Hogue and Carolyn G. Faris led us through room after room, some with shelves lined with dolls and other artifacts, boxes of textiles, dresses and old undergarments (once worn by Germantowners, of course!) stacked high, and a full library of books, manuscripts, maps, and images.

I thought it would be difficult for my sister and I to settle (and agree) on an object, but as soon as we saw a section of fence from the historic Johnson House, dated c. 1770, we easily came to a consensus, pairing it with an old wooden rake (date unknown).

We were drawn to objects from Germantown’s past that connected with The W Rockland Street Project, our citizen-driven effort to revitalize one city block in Southwest Germantown.

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Modern yard rakes and other simple gardening tools are not so different from the early tools you’ll find in museums. They symbolize the physical labor and hard work that goes into maintaining our public and private outdoor spaces. Simply cleaning up is one of the cheapest ways to improve the look and feel of a neighborhood, while building community at the same time. The many cleanups and greening activities that W Rockland Street participates in shows just how far sweat equity and back to basics organizing can take one community.

Staff at the Historical Society were excited to bring the never before exhibited Johnson House fence out of the archives.

In the fence, we see Germantown’s 21st century struggles – with blight, poverty and gun violence.

Its physical characteristics are not so different than the wooden fences we see everyday protecting the lots on our block and vacant land across the city. (Is it a sign that you’re from Philadelphia when ordinary fences make you think about NTI (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative) fencing?) 

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene Street

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene St in June 2013. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society installed this fence at our request in December 2012, though not officially part of the LandCare Program, which maintains select vacant lots across the city.

Sometimes I think about the lost neighborhood history and the houses and buildings that formerly stood in their place. Looking around at the many crumbling structures still standing, its hard to swallow the fact that there will be more lots in the future as declining buildings are demolished.

recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Germantown’s neoclassical Town Hall building and other looming vacant landmarks warned “the damage can be lessened if the city gets serious about protecting them, by boarding them up securely and inspecting the properties regularly.” It’s hard to believe that will happen when it rarely happens at the residential level.

On W Rockland Street, there are 46 three-story, century old row homes with seven lots scattered in-between. Homes lost to fire and neglect once stood in these gaps. I no longer remember them. Fences now frame the open spaces. They become what you make them.

We worked alongside our neighbors to build a vibrant community garden in one of our block’s lots, but we struggle to reimagine the others. Maintaining the land and keeping the lots free of the chronic illegal dumping that plagued them just a few years ago is the most we can do right now.

At the same time, the Johnson House fence also bears the scars of war. The rifle ball holes in the fence are reputed to be from the Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777 in the American Revolutionary War. The musket balls lying on the museum floor actually fell out of this very fence.

Last summer, a lifelong resident of our block was murdered in another type of war, set in another century. On Friday, August 17, 2012, Bryan Jones, 48, was shot to death while sitting on the porch of his family’s W Rockland Street row home. Bryan was the 226th person murdered in Philadelphia that year. The case remains unsolved to this day.

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence – Archival photo (date unknown)

Inhabit Germantown will be on view from June 27 to September 13, 2013, Tuesdays 9 am – 1 pm, Thursdays 1 pm – 5 pm, and Sunday hours by appointment. The exhibition features objects selected by seven Germantowners – Aine and Emaleigh Doley, Renny MolenaarYahne NdgoKristin Haskins SimmsStephanie Grauman Wolf, and David W. Young. The Germantown Historical Society is located at 5501 Germantown Avenue at Church Lane. Go visit! germantownhistory.org