By Beth U

I biked up to the vacant lot and stopped to open the gate, the iced coffee in my hand now lukewarm and dripping.  Angel, the 10-year old neighbor, spied me from his second-story window and was soon tearing across the gravel to meet me. Together we unlocked the large metal storage container that stood at the back of the lot. Despite the early hour, it was humid.  Pockets of damp air heated up as the sun rose over Angel’s roof.  We pulled out tables and chairs and placed them in the shade.  This lot was one of the few places in eastern South Philadelphia that boasted a tree large enough to throw a shadow on what would become a steaming afternoon.

I hauled a placard to the sidewalk:  “OPEN HOUSE today from 1-4pm.” In a few hours, a local environmental organization would host a public workshop on urban gardening. Soon, the theater troupe would arrive and haphazardly pile their bicycles against the wall.  They would spend the afternoon rehearsing in the back lot amid the ever-strangling weeds.  Soon, too, all of Angel’s peers would arrive to tell stories and draw maps on the butcher paper we placed atop the tables.

This neighborhood, like most of Philadelphia, is characterized by what locals call row homes, or contiguous houses with frontage that abuts the sidewalk. About 20 years ago, the city razed the four houses that once stood on this vacant lot as part of a “blight removal” program. The row home across from Angel’s—known until recently as a “drug house”—is currently under renovation, as are numerous other properties on the surrounding streets.

For nine months in 2015, a social practice art collaborative used the lot as a hub space to host a series of public activities, workshops and gatherings.[i] The collaborative consisted of three major partners: community members and local residents, a large arts institution which I call “City Arts” in this essay and an artistic team of urban planners, architects, artists, a curator and an ethnographer, myself.  The collaboration was funded by a grant administered by City Arts.


See the rest of this article at Anthropology Now.

[i] Stephen Wright describes social practice art as having a “low coefficient of artistic visibility,”—meaning that the emphasis is in on the process of engagement more than on an aesthetic product.  See Stephen Wright. The future of the reciprocal readymade (The use-value of art). Apexart.


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