Park. Design of the park and mural by Lily Yeh. Mosaics by James "Big
Yeh's Art of Transformation,
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 Yehs gallery-centered career. I didnt plan to stay, she
confesses. I wanted to move on with my career, but it took hold of me.
I couldnt forget that place. It wouldnt 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. Id 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 its because in broken down places spirits are more
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 whats 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 lotswith, shes convinced, more to
come. What Id 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
Yehs work at the Village renegotiates the boundaries
of many artistic disciplines, not only mural painting and sculpture, but
architecture and urban design as well. Ive 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 peoples 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. Whats so striking about Lilys 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, Yehs 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 McDonalds 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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