By Nick Gilewicz
When the idea of turning
Frankford Avenue, the main street that cuts a swath through some of Philadelphia's grittiest neighborhoods, does have art - and artists - with more arriving each month to live and to set up galleries, studios and storefronts in Fishtown, East Kensington and Kensington.
In some ways, it is an old story: artists, in search of places to live and work, gravitating to down-and-out neighborhoods, lured mostly by low-priced housing, good studio spaces and cheap rents. But, there is a new twist.
Government and community development agencies have grasped the role that arts and artists can play in revitalizing neighborhoods and are centering their plans around them. Along
Originally a housing assistance organization, New Kensington CDC worked--and continues to work--to keep low- and middle-income residents in their homes. But, its mission has expanded over the years to reviving these old, rowhouse neighborhoods that were once factory towns within the city.
Five years ago, the idea of repositioning
"It was a little smoke and mirrors in the beginning," admits Sarah Corlett, a former professional ballet dancer and the economic development director of New Kensington CDC, "but people wanted to be by Bambi and Rocket Cat."
In other words, the corridor already had two anchors.
Bambi, a gallery and artists consignment shop was one of
Rocket Cat Café is a popular coffee shop at
This will not be an overnight transformation. It can take years to build, piece by piece, but the city and others are willing to invest in making it happen along this stretch of
The New Kensington CDC has had its share of success in working on improving the look and viability of
The lots were unsightly and visible signs of the neighborhood's deterioration. "The lots on the west side [of
From 1995 to 2002, and society and New Kensington cleaned up vacant and abandoned lots, planted trees, and installed the now-familiar wooden fencing that now marks lots cleaned up by the Horticultural Society, which has since expanded its program to other city neighborhoods.
The spin-off effects were good to Kensington and Fishtown. A study conducted by the
In 2003, the neighborhood started working on a plan to revitalize
One of the organizations that wanted to be near Bambi was the Highwire Gallery, a co-operative artist-run gallery that lost its previous home due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Highwire's welcome was mixed.
Some neighbors were warm, like those across the alley behind the gallery. When Highwire moved in, Waring said, they brought a bottle of
But not everyone acted so kindly. At Highwire's very first opening, a group of kids threw rocks at their window from across the street.
"I think part of it is art is an unknown entity with [some] neighborhood people," Waring said. But he's optimistic about the gallery's future relationship with the neighborhood.
"I think they see that [Highwire] is people trying to put stuff together," said Waring. "A co-op is different than another Starbucks."
"We get stuff like color pencil drawings of hockey players on the wall alongside contemporary artwork," Waring said."Highwire has been open to what art can be. It embraces the outsider movement, but doesn't like those terms."
Corlett spoke of a neighborhood resident, Kate Simon, who had been making masquerade masks her whole life, and who showed her work at Highwire. "She was super proud of it," said Corlett. "She had never thought of herself as an artist before."
Turnkey projects for artists and businesses have also been a crucial element of
The building that houses the Rocket Cat Cafe was owned by the CDC, who sold the building to Thomas Roach and Karen Reese to start the cafe. The price was "below market rate," according to Corlett. City records indicate the sale price was $9,000.
A few blocks north, the New Kensington has also stabilized the building that now houses Walking Fish Theater--Corlett described their work as "keeping it from falling down"--and then sold it to Michelle Pauls and Stan Heleva, who run the theater.
Pauls and Heleva live upstairs with their daughter, and their deed requires the maintenance of an art space in the building. The price for a building that has become a home, a theater, and, rapidly, a neighborhood institution? $62,000.
Some neighborhood artists see signs of improvement. Tim Pannell, a printmaker and a member of the Little Berlin arts collective on
There are other newcomers as well, among them Angler Movement Arts Center, Circle Thrift and Viking Mills, an former mill turned into artist's spaces, which is near the Coral Street Arts House.
With each success, however,
"Before," Corlett said, "we could buy a building like that for $20,000. They now cost $100,000, so I don't know that it can go on."
In addition, the grants will be used to add four additional sculptures that double as bike racks - much like the metal fish in front of Rocket Cat; construct 15-foot-high metal structures, cantilevered over the street with a large "F" and "A" to brand the street, and build two new sculpturally designed bus shelters; and steel-and-copper benches, in a nod to the industrial history of the neighborhood.
"The marketing of the corridor as an arts corridor was key," Corlett said. "Pushing to the city, the neighborhood, the arts commission that this has a reputation as an area where artists are making things. It's 'The Workshop of the World,' right? People are making things."
Click here for a slideshow on the Frankford Avenue project.
Nick Gilewicz is a journalist who lives in Northern Liberties and
writes frequently about arts and culture.
Read: Profiles of two artists who have managed to create communities and become integrated into a city that's not always known for welcoming outsiders. Tim Pannell and Jeff Waring are part of the remaking of
Masthead Photo: Coral Arts House apartments/studios.
Photo 1: Rocket Cat Cafe
Photo 2: Opening at Little Berlin gallery