Public art is not an art “form”. Its size can be huge or small. It can tower fifty feet high or call attention to the paving beneath your feet. Its shape can be abstract or realistic (or both), and it may be cast, carved, built, assembled, or painted. It can be site-specific or stand in contrast to its surroundings. What distinguishes public art is the unique association of how it is made, where it is, and what it means. Public art can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions. Placed in public sites, this art is there for everyone, a form of collective community expression. Public art is a reflection of how we see the world – the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.
Adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin
Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).
And so on February 16, 2017, I am parked and waiting at Reconstruction’s site at 411 Master Street. 1 pm, pushed back from 12 noon. Waiting for my colleagues to begin gathering narratives. I have some of my questions ready for the community members I’m eager to meet. ‘How long have you lived here?’ ‘What do you think of the neighborhood? Would you change anything if you could?’ ‘How would you define a ‘just’ neighbor?’
I’m on time. And looking around the neighborhood, and our site------
So much work to do. Plastic bags, and broken bottles and cracked up discarded debris. Odd pieces with awkward angles remain from the structures that were here before. There’s trash everywhere. I do a 360. I walk to two corners. Not a trash can anywhere. Ridiculous. Even if I felt like putting my candy wrapper in a trashcan I couldn’t. Maybe there are reasons that make sense, like in London, though I hardly think that trashcans throughout this neighborhood would invite terrorist bombs. I see plenty of trashcans in University City and Society Hill. Then again, what’s the use of trashcans if they’re not emptied on time? Maybe it’s like snow removal--- you just know Society Hill gets plowed faster and better than this neighborhood.
Our site looks worse when I walk in front of it, instead of glancing at it when I drive by like I have these last few months. I don’t remember so many plastic bags blowing about, and I also don’t recall the faces of the folks who live in this neighborhood. My bad. Note to self: before I comment on any neighborhood, see and experience it at different times. Meet the people. Longtime residents and newcomers. Wealthy and not. Old and not so old. Watch the children play at the local school. Smile. Think.
But for now screw the trashcans, or lack thereof. I have other problems: I have to go. Four male construction workers are reconstructing the large building catty-corner across the street from our lot. Where is everyone? If I go over there to ask them about finding a bathroom, I might not be safe. Too many “Law and Order’ episodes running around in my psyche.
But hey. That looks like a Spot-a-Pot next to the construction site across the street, and if it is--I might be allowed to use it. But if I did use it, would it be clean enough so that I could avoid therapy from the trauma of having to go in there in the first place? Yikes! I talk myself out of even investigating that possibility. Besides, there’s dust everywhere. Breathing problems.
Yes! A nice looking person approaches. Oh, joy -- it’s A WOMAN pushing a baby stroller down the other side of Master Street.
ME: Cute baby.
WOMAN: Thank you.
ME: Do you know where there’s a coffee shop or some sort of store around here?
ME: Oh. Thanks.
WOMAN: You’re welcome.
She smiles, but I’m sure she knows I can barely see her bundled up baby from where I’m standing. I’d take the compliment too and skedaddle. I guess she sees me doing my got-to-get-to-the-bathroom-kinda quickly dance. I’d hurry past me too.
I still have to go. I know there are food deserts in cities, but what about bathroom deserts? What about taking for granted that I could pop into a café or store and use their bathroom--even if I’d have to buy something to do it? A friend told me that if you go to a restaurant and sit down and order a glass of water, then by law the management must let you use the bathroom. Jaywalking is supposedly illegal too.
Inner voice shut the coitus up! (1) Think positive and wonderful thoughts about this precedent-setting project. Be happy you are meeting folks from all over the city, not to mention public artist, Jeanne van Heeswijk from Rotterdam. And--like-minded artsy-creative Collaborators who can catalyze all of the great possibilities for future change into reality. Gee whiz, right here and now, focus on reconstructing the word ‘Collaborators.’ Coolio. We ain’t no punks plotting with the enemy. We’re artists and writers and storytellers and we’re plotting with each other to make this huge, interactive, breathing project to share with the world.
Alas, the pesky voice returns---questioning who is the ‘we’, and ultimately, who speaks for whom.
I didn‘t know what to expect...this is such new territory for me. It is a pleasant experience for me. It is invigorating.
The ‘It” being this project. At least there’s one person who isn’t trying to speak for anyone but herself about our ‘new territory’. Take heed, and shut the coitus up inner voice. We’re in new territory for everyone I suppose, including Jeanne. Public art changes with each person added or subtracted from the project, with each material and legal block which stands in our individual and collective ways, with a serendipitous grace that eases our problems. Our process is the art itself. I’m sure there is a great teleological collective end toward which we’re all striving, but ultimately, when we band together I suspect in some way we’re reinforcing our values, the same values that resonate with other people. We’re echoing ourselves---and if that’s the case, I don’t know how change is created. Perhaps change gathers in the parts of ourselves that rub up against the friction of difference in another person, those clashes that make us question ourselves. Clashes which lead to friction, frisson, and adaptation. Hmm, maybe if we’re introspective and honest all that can happen. And if we’re not, obviously we can still become POTUS. And life goes on.
Aha, my artistic peeps appear and we walk the neighborhood. Second block---a coffee shop. Yay. Bathroom and coffee. (And some people say there’s no God). The people are interesting, including one young attractive white woman who has lived in this neighborhood for at least four years, against her parents’ wishes. My colleague records her story, and I hear her ask, ‘What or who is a just neighbor’? I jump up for my second Americano before I hear the answer.
Fortified, we plan our route, but before we leave I decide I can’t forget this one fact: I just enjoyed a lovely respite in a gentrified fancy coffee shop. Who and what was there in that space before the coffee shop? I can almost see the hard working folks who eventually were displaced. And before them and before them? The Leni Lenape. And before them…flora and fauna? And before that, bare grinding tectonic plates? Can we reconstruct the earth itself--beyond pollution and fertilizer? Who will win “The Voice” this year?
We meander toward Girard the long way and pass a “Day Without Immigrants” sign on a taqueria. Fantastic! And then we discover the newish-faddish restaurant a friend mentioned. We exchange pleasantries with the owner. They don’t participate in restaurant week. Sigh.
Northern Liberties, Kensington--these are areas my Dad warned me about when I first got my driver’s license into my hot 17-year-old teenage hands. Racist Kensington, Fishtown, Tacony-Palmyra Bridge on the other, Philly side. They weren’t safe places for Black folks, especially young Black women. But of course, America has never been safe for Black women, young or old. Safety is both relative and privileged.
And the racism. Egad. Maybe it’s still there or perhaps racism has morphed into a different form. Some believe it’s still racist now. And some say things are much better. Listen, don’t be so pessimistic. Don’t worry. People are getting along. The new restaurants and stores are good things for the area. We can all thrive together. They believe that “Love---love will keep us together”. Where are Captain and Tennille when you need them? (2)
The very few businesses owned by people of color seem to be disappearing. There have to be limits on displacement. Limits, but ah, that difficult first move--be it protest, or City Council resolutions or banks--banks that will probably undercharge white business owners and over charge people of color. Searching for some sort of limits. My colleague reminds me that uber huge projects at least give us art.
The PRA’s [Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority] Percent for Art Program obligates developers who are building on land acquired and assembled by the PRA to dedicate at least one percent of the total building construction costs toward the commissioning of original, site-specific works of art. Since the inception of the Program, hundreds of public art have been installed in all areas of Philadelphia. Works of public art can be found in such diverse developments as high-rise commercial and residential towers, housing for families and the elderly, shopping plazas, parks, hotels, universities, schools, and libraries.
I need to research Philly’s specific, reconstruction and redevelopment laws. We’re always building over and onto something--ideologically, and physically. Maybe everything in Philadelphia could be defined as ‘new’ construction. Bring the minimum investment down by millions and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We could have large and small, huge and tiny, still and interactive---and everything in between art. Public art all over. I see statues on corners, and paintings on doors, and an energetic vibe that is cohesive, or not but gets everyone talking and interacting.
Public art is the place where we can put ourselves at risk…we can risk ourselves in order to have a discussion about how we can be together in that space.
Jeanne van Heeswijk
We continue to walk and we reach Girard. The Saint Lazarus bar sits on a corner. Very exciting. Groovy decorations and nice folks. “If you want to talk about gentrification, you need to meet the people who’ve lived here for years”. I like the bartender. I like this area. I like Philly.
(1) Trying to keep this text free from curse words. Use your imagination--you know what I mean.
(2) Sadly, as of this post Love didn’t keep them together. Nasty divorce. http://radaronline.com/celebrity-news/captain-tennille-daryl-dragon-toni-tennille-interview-memoir/