Creativity builds new community connections in Philadelphia

Communities / Article

Local residents add to a crowdsourced mural where participants were invited to participate via randomly distributed invite cards complete with tube of paint and brush.

Hunter Franks, an artist and founder of the Neighborhood Postcard Project and League of Creative Interventionists, is in Philadelphia for three weeks using participatory art to create connections between people and neighborhoods with Knight Foundation support. Photo credit: Hunter Franks.

Rick’s face lit up. “Pearly the cat!” he exclaimed. I had asked him what his first love was. “That cat loved me but nobody else. She would hiss and scratch at everyone except me. She loved me.” It’s truly amazing how much people will tell you if you just ask.

I had partnered with Asian Arts Initiative to activate the Pearl Street Alley behind their building and carry out the First Love project which collects the story of people’s first love along with their portrait. First Love provides a safe, fun, shared space to share personal stories, and it is always amazing how much people will share if you simply ask them.

Later in the week, I was back at Asian Arts for the launch of the Philadelphia chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists, a global network of communities creating shared spaces and experiences to break down social barriers. We did some exercises to help us slow down, including standing out on the sidewalk for 60 seconds with our eyes closed. When you slow down and close your eyes, the buzz of cars driving by and the sounds of the city feel very different. We then proceeded to build a “slow lane” to encourage passersby to slow down in their conquest to get from point A to point B. I had no plan for the lane, only three rolls of duct tape and some paper. The remarkable creativity of the league members resulted in a dance station, hopscotch, streamers and signs encouraging people to stop and take a photo of the sunset. Give people permission and simple tools to make their communities better, and they will endlessly surprise you.

More surprises came at Museum of You, a participatory installation I set up at the Porch at 30th Street Station, an amazing new public space adjacent to the main train station in Philadelphia. Museum of You is an interactive museum where passersby are invited to share the story of an object that is important to them. Participants wrote their object and story on a piece of fabric and then hung that fabric on a line of string that connected several of the patio umbrellas over the seating at the Porch. Fifty people participated over several days, and wrote about everything from their sketchbooks to watches to keys, of which one person wrote “my keys are important to me because they get me home to him after a bad day at work, and drive me to the places I can escape to.” The installation forced participants to think about common objects in new light. My final project in Philly sought to get participants thinking about a neighborhood in a new light.

I partnered with the Mural Arts program to complete a crowdsourced mural in the Belmont neighborhood. Belmont is a blighted neighborhood to outsiders — filled with abandoned houses, trash, and danger. I was lucky enough to stay at a house in Belmont for my three weeks in Philadelphia, and I found a strong, kind community that is actively seeking to improve. Neighbors say hello from their front porches, they clean up trash in front of their houses, and there is at least one block party every Saturday. As the nearby universities grow and more housing turns to students, I wanted residents in nearby neighborhoods to experience Belmont the way I had. So with strong partners, I created an aspirational mural at Belmont Charter School, outlining the words “Reach high and you will go far” and invited residents in Belmont and the neighboring West Powelton neighborhood to come fill in the mural by randomly distributing invite cards with a packet of paint and brush. The mural filled up in several days and created a shared space around a positive, creative experience.

It didn’t have to be a mural, or a “slow lane,” or a museum. The people had the inspiration and tools they needed to effect positive community change. The rest was up to them. Give people, regardless of culture, income or race, the ability to actively and immediately contribute to the change they want to see and the results will surprise and amaze both you and them. What begins with a roll of duct tape, a piece of fabric or the stroke of a paintbrush leads to shared stories, new connections and advancing communities.

Grab some duct tape and sharpies and add your voice. The Philadelphia League of Creative Interventionists meets monthly to create and carry out interventions in public space that get strangers interacting. Learn more and join here.