Ile-Ife Park. Design of the park and mural by Lily Yeh. Mosaics by James "Big Man” Maxton.

Lily Yeh's Art of Transformation, continued...

    Williams supported Yeh not only through physical pick-and-shovel labor, but by becoming her conduit to other kindred spirits who would give her work core support. Prominent among them have been James “Big Man” Maxton, a 6-foot, 8- inch tall neighborhood drug runner who soon blossomed into an energizing organizer of community renovation efforts, and a skilled mosaic artist and craftsman himself; Deborah “Mama Debbie” Maxton, who helped organize efforts to teach arts to children; and H. German Wilson, whose theater programs have been perennially popular with Philadelphia youth.
    Ile-Ife was supposed to be a one-shot deal, a temporary detour from Yeh’s gallery-centered career. “I didn’t plan to stay,” she confesses. “I wanted to move on with my career, but it took hold of me. I couldn’t forget that place. It wouldn’t let me.” For a long time, she adds, she had been “poking around, trying to re-connect to the transcendent place I believed art was supposed to reach. I’d never been able to really paint that place, but by physically creating a community garden I began to connect there again. North Philadelphia gave me the opportunity to see again. I think it’s because in broken down places spirits are more open.”
    What followed over the next several years, as Yeh began to base herself in the neighborhood, was the founding and flowering of The Village of Arts and Humanities, an effort unique in the annals of both contemporary art and community activism. Yeh, along with an expanding crew of volunteers, and more than a dozen full-time paid workers, including neighborhood people, college students and visiting artists from Philadelphia and around the world, embarked on efforts to transform what’s come to be called the “Village Heart,” the four block area bounded by Germantown Avenue on the east, Huntington Avenue on the north and Cumberland Street on the south.
    Spreading outward from this core into a wider 20-to-30 block area she calls “The Village Neighborhood,” Yeh and her cohorts have transformed more than 120 abandoned lots—with, she’s convinced, more to come. “What I’d like to do,” she declares, “is to revive every abandoned lot and building in the 260-block area encompassing North Philadelphia. We want to turn decimated areas into meadows, wildflower fields, urban tree farms, and mixed-use offices, educational facilities and low income housing.”
    Yeh’s work at the Village renegotiates the boundaries of many artistic disciplines, not only mural painting and sculpture, but architecture and urban design as well. “I’ve come to conceive of the Village as a living piece of sculpture,” she explains, “in which sculpture is a communal event. The walls are all shaped and touched by people’s hands, including as many people from the community as possible.” Though this unconventional, multi-faceted approach flies in the face of business-as-usual in the city-planning profession no less than in the art world, it is gradually gaining a core of admirers.
    “The dominant style and instinct of urban planners,” observes Sally Harrison, professor of architecture at Temple University, whose main campus is in North Philadelphia, “is still to come into a blighted area with the idea of just clearing away the old and re-making it with a brand new concept. What’s so striking about Lily’s vision is that, with far fewer resources at her disposal, she takes an organic, evolutionary approach to rebuilding, finding the seeds of the new within the old, working with the natural fabric of the environment.”
    Unlike mainstream architects, who build on the basis of their own conceptions and blueprints, Yeh’s vision of neighborhood development emerges from the bottom up, lot by lot and block by block. As she describes the process, “People will come to us and tell us about an abandoned property on their block. We then hold a block meeting and come up with a view of how they want that space used.”
    The spaces are meant to be aesthetic objects, integral parts of the physical and emotional tone of the neighborhood. Even more so, however, they are created as a means of mobilizing people in the neighborhood to create “community wealth” and bring jobs into the community. “We want to create meaningful jobs,” Yeh insists. “Not just McDonald’s jobs, but jobs based on community enterprises.”
    Accomplishment of that goal means providing neglected youth with skills, as well as the confidence to prepare them for a global knowledge-based economy. Yeh believes that, here too, the arts can play a crucial role. In partnerships with several area public schools, The Village has developed a program called Education Through the Arts. “This is not just arts education as usual,” Yeh emphasizes, but a new methodology using the arts to foster a wide variety of cognitive and other skills.
    At the Hartranft School at Eighth and Cumberland streets, three blocks from The Village, for instance, Yeh and other staff members have used the arts to work with K-5 students with learning disabilities in reading and writing. They used the motif of angels, according to Yeh, “because the children live in a dangerous place and need security.

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