/movement nov 10 '17
As the autumn leaves begin to fall around us and Philadelphia’s air is full of crisp possibilities, something very special is happening in the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Philadelphia Assembled,” the cumulative exhibition of a project over three years in the making and initiated by Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, does not seek to tell the viewer what to think, but rather probes questions that people like myself--a lifelong Philadelphian--sometimes do not ask ourselves. Like: what is the human price of progress?
As an Exhibition Coordinator for “Philadelphia Assembled,” it is my job to enhance the visitor experience and welcome guests to the museum. I wear a large blue button that says “Host,” and enjoy helping people feel comfortable in the Perelman Building. One of the more unique characteristics of the exhibition is that it is “Pay as You Wish,” a price tag that invites many people who may not normally visit museums due to their often cost-prohibitive nature. Philadelphia, an incredible city and the birthplace of America as a nation independent from the British, is frequently marketed as having a Renaissance moment. Huge revenue and exposure from national events have expanded tourism, and capitalization on underutilized spaces is increasing exponentially. However, a contradictory duality exists: According to a 2017 Pew Charitable Trust survey, Philadelphia’s poverty rate (as it has for years) remains the highest among the nation’s largest cities at 26%. 43% of Latinos and 37% of the city’s children--supposedly the birthplace of modern democracy--live below the poverty line.
“Philadelphia Assembled” does not have a political motive or agenda. Instead, it offers an honest and sometimes uncomfortable portrait of an imperfect place. One of the galleries that seems to elicit some of the strongest observable reactions from guests is the “Reconstructions” space, where there is a display of signs taken from close radius of the Perelman building filling an entire wall. These signs may be phrased differently, but they have the same meaning: “We Buy Houses--Fast!” or “Get Cash for Your House Today, Any Condition” or variations of this are all strong indicators that gentrification is occurring in a neighborhood. Instead of a realtor's phone number on a sign, when a guest dials the number displayed they will hear stories of local displacement. Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
Many Philadelphians who visit the exhibition directly relate to these, as it is a strong trend in many neighborhoods throughout the city. What surprised me even more were the countless other guests, from around the world, who have approached me with similar observations from their locales. One of my first most memorable encounters was with a Chinese visitor, born and raised in Shanghai. She asked me to define gentrification for her and grasped the meaning very quickly, because a similar effect is happening in her hometown. Because Shanghai does not have the racial diversity of Philadelphia, gentrification is not as delineated along whites and younger people displacing older and/or minority populations. Instead, as the guest explained to me, it is separated generally more by the swelling upper class mobility and urban population explosion.
Several days later, a British homeowner from Manchester visited the exhibition. As many before her, she was moved to tears by the stories of gentrification on the “Reconstructions” wall. An emotional conversation led her to explain that she often feels complicit in the gentrification happening in Manchester because she has owned her home for over 30 years in a neighborhood she could never afford today, but could at the time of purchase. She felt guilty because she sees many of her neighbors who rented for years being pushed out of her neighborhood. The Manchester narrative was quite relatable for a Philadelphian like myself: Manchester, an incredibly historic city with diverse cultural offerings, is experiencing high-levels of population growth and expanding wealth, but is facing issues of problematic displacement. I spoke with her further--about Philadelphia’s legendary inferiority complex, being geographically between New York City and Washington D.C.--and she related to the feeling of living in a city that seemed somewhat underappreciated for years, but now is experiencing this growth with a double-edged sword.
There are many more memorable encounters I have had hosting in this exhibition. A man who left North Philadelphia 30 years ago but returned, visiting family, had many mixed emotions about the gentrification he sees happening in his neighborhood. He told me he left because of the crime (which, when I was growing up in the early 1990’s and 2000’s, was more violent and rampant), but even though his childhood home is safer, many of his former neighbors were pushed out by new development. He no longer knew if he would have made the same move again, due to a similar feeling of complicity that the guest from Manchester had, but reversed: where she felt that somehow, her moving in solidarity with her old neighbors would make a difference, he felt that if he stayed in Philadelphia maybe he could have prevented some of the gentrification that took place. It was difficult to hear these people’s stories, all of whom have such pure intentions and genuine sympathy for the suffering of others in their communities, and who experience pain from this empathy.
And more abound: a woman from Paris the other day, commenting on how she was not aware English had a word for the effect of gentrification before visiting “Philadelphia Assembled.” A man born and raised in Reading, PA, whose city has long felt the trickle-down effects of Philadelphia gentrification, where a sharp, recent rise in crime has marked this rural city as one of America’s most dangerous--now, he feels the streets are no longer safe for his children to play alone in. “Philadelphia Assembled” revealed to me that the world is vast, and humanity is expansive in our collective experiences, but that we can relate to each other in compassion that transcends race and nationality. In this way, our global community is awakened through increased awareness of issues, often bigger and more relatable than we see in our day-to-day. “Philadelphia Assembled” runs through December 10, 2017.