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Art in the Village

the village lily yeh
Village of Arts and Humanities

How did an impoverished North Philadelphia community transform abandoned lots into whimsical sculpture gardens? How did six-story murals sprout on the sides of crumbling buildings?

Walking through the streets today, neighbors proudly call to point out to you the once–forsaken lots—more than 120 of them—that today display colorful murals. One of the murals is based on a painting of flowers first done by neighborhood children and then painted three stories high on the side of a building. Nearby a parade of angels representing the world's faiths—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and others—guard a park and create a haven for performances.

Blocks and blocks of empty houses and fields of rubble have given way to these murals, mosaics, and sculpture gardens. Streets better known for drug dealing and joblessness now are interspersed with pockets of hope and new community initiatives.

“All the gardens, parks, and buildings should bring people joy,” says Lily Yeh, the artist behind this transformation. “There should be a mystery to them; their appearance is rooted in different cultural traditions, some of which have distant and ancient origins.”

The transformation of these blocks of North Philadelphia occurred over the course of 18 years through the work of the Village of Arts and Humanities. The Village, as it is called, is a nonprofit founded by Lily, a painter and immigrant from China who left her tenured professorship at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts to reimagine and remake a neighborhood with the people who live there.

Philadelphia is a city full of murals, but the Village did far more than create beautiful places. The Village also spawned a daycare center, a theater program that has sent neighborhood young people on international tours, and a health project. Most recently, the Village has launched “Shared Prosperity,” a program that aims to address the community's economic ills.

The legacy of poverty
North Philadelphia is an African-American neighborhood with 30 percent unemployment, an average annual household income of only $10,000, and gentrification threatening from nearby Temple University.

Not long ago, drug dealers controlled the streets. In one block that is now at the heart of the Village, three-quarters of the lots and buildings were abandoned. Children had nowhere to go.

The Village is centered in an eight–square–block area near Germantown Avenue and North 11th Street, where sculpture gardens and Village programs are concentrated. This is where its first renovated buildings and earliest art parks took shape, but the broader reach of the Village spans 250 blocks.

Lily Yeh's story in North Philly began 18 years ago, when a prominent local dancer invited her to do something with the abandoned lot near his studio, one of hundreds in the neighborhood. Children saw Lily (“a crazy Chinese lady”) cleaning up the lot and wandered over to see what was up. They stayed to help, eventually drawing in their parents.

One of the first neighborhood adults to get involved was James “Big Man” Maxton, who left a life as a drug runner to teach mosaic and masonry to hundreds of residents.

“I was a lost soul in the community, disconnected from my family, looking for a way to come back to reality on the tail end of a 22-year drug addiction,” Big Man recalled in a conversation before his untimely death in February.

Lily “wrapped her wings around me and taught me how to believe in myself,” he said of his early days at the Village. “Only later did I find out my work wasn't tremendous!”

Like Big Man's journey, the Village unfolded slowly, with Lily and her crew of children and street people creating an art park, then an open-air coming-of-age ritual for young people. Next there was a teen program and a project that trained local residents in construction and then practiced by renovating the buildings that would house Village programs. 

All this happened under the radar of the city of Philadelphia, whose city planners and social workers were nowhere to be found in the neighborhood.

Lily's vision inspired funders who did not look too closely at who owned the land that was being reclaimed (eventually the Village negotiated ownership of the key lots).

As local crews remade the buildings and lots, a sense of pride and ownership developed among the construction crews, and by extension, the whole community. “One of the most powerful things I learned,” says Lily, “is that when you learn a skill and transform your immediate environment, your whole life begins to change.”

Theater at the Village
In 1992, civil rights elder and theater director H. German Wilson added performance art to the built environment created by Lily, Big Man, and the community construction crews.

The Memorial Garden on Warnock Street, behind the Village's administration building, became one of the Village's open-air performance spaces. This garden contains totems—or “sticks in the ground” as one staffperson calls them—and walls of tiles created by neighbors in memory of lost ones.

The first play drew on Lily's recordings of neighbors' stories; playwright Winston Jones wove the stories into a script. Wilson directed the production, and the neighbors were cast and crew.

The theater productions have become a yearly tradition, with the script often coming directly out of the young people's experiences. Word of the productions has traveled; performances now take place not only in a Village park, but in theaters in Mexico, Iceland, and elsewhere.

This year Wilson is working with playwright Richard Lamont Pierce on a production called “Choices.” The play is about how mistakes can have a deep effect on your life, says Wilson, and how “you have to stay in school in order to make a choice.”

“The performances and the art make everybody equal,” said Jamile Wilson, 18, soon after he returned from a troupe trip to Iceland. “People from other places who may have more than you do can see what it is you can do.”

Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and an early supporter of the Village, echoed that view. The Village “changed the perception in the [wider] community from ‘there's something wrong with these people' to ‘there's nothing wrong with these people.'”

In addition to the annual theater festival, the Kujenga Pamoja festival (meaning “Together We Build” in Swahili) has become an annual fall tradition. The festival culminates in a coming-of-age ritual that was one of the Village's earliest contributions to the neighborhood.

 

Lily Yeh Mural

mural by Lily Yeh

“We transformed a physical space into a ritual space,” Lily recalls. “We cleansed the grounds and put candles everywhere, not just in the park, but on the sidewalks. The youth were prepared—they'd been through summer job training together and had been camping. The whole community held torches as we walked into the sacred space, and then we took pledges by the fire to be a foundation to the community. We will respect our elders. We will be the light of the future.”

Over the years, the Village continued looking for opportunities to create sacred spaces—to express, as Lily put it, “that everybody has an inner light, that each is equal, and together we can burn like a big torch.” One garden might host a celebration to mark the end of a term of the children's programs, another might host a winter festival. Last September's coming-of-age ritual inaugurated a new labyrinth the youth built in the Village's tree farm, and had Lily passing the torch on to the new Village director, playwright and performer Kumani Gantt.

 

The Village has won international recognition, including the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence in 2001. Lily herself is the recipient of a 2003–2005 Leadership for a Changing World award, jointly presented by the Ford Foundation and the Advocacy Institute.

A global canvas
The Village has begun a new phase. The new director plans more training in video production and the digital arts for teens. A hip–hop festival will be held in September that will close off nearby Germantown Avenue, fill the parks, and attract customers to area merchants, while presenting the art form most embraced by younger residents. And vacant lots will be transformed in a wider range of ways as defined by the community—by creating basketball courts, for instance.

While focusing on what it does well—in youth work, performance, and greening and stabilizing the land—the Village also is recognizing its limitations. Through its newly launched Shared Prosperity project, the Village plans to invite allies to help with economic development and with the creation of quality housing beyond the six residential buildings the Village has already fixed up. 

So the Village continues to change and grow. Lily is returning to the Village to create the Institute for Creative Learning to share what she's learned about creating community art in partnership with people living in some of the poorest communities.

 

Abby Scher is a free-lance writer living in New York. Abby met Lily Yeh as a fellow in the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World Program. Until recently, she was director of Independent Press Association–New York, a network of immigrant and other culturally diverse press, and editor-in-chief of its free web weekly Voices That Must Be Heard; see www.indypressny.org . Email Signup
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