Beginning May 23rd, artists became community organizers at the Hidden City Festival’s “Germantown City Hall” project, which opened inside the historic, long-abandoned Germantown Town Hall. “A lot of people have been asking, ‘Are you rehabbing the space?’ That’s been the top question,” said Meredith Warner, a member of the Germantown artists’ collective known as Think Tank that has yet to be named. More than a simple architectural renovation, however, Think Tank and Oakland-based artist Jacob Wick are activating the Town Hall building as a community gathering site for the duration of the 2013 Hidden City Festival (May 23 to June 30). In the process, they are offering an open invitation to the residents of Germantown to come together as a community in the space, which, despite its name, has never before been used as a real Town Hall.
The artists look to transform the abandoned space into a site of community engagement and development
“Germantown City Hall” will kick off over Memorial Day weekend with a series of events to draw residents into the space. On Saturday, May 25 there will be a performance by trumpet player Messiah Patton. Later that day, Wick will host the first of a series of forums on the subject of what Germantown would be like if it was its own independent city. Wick said he intends to seriously explore the question, including the legal framework for potential independence, and what the advantages would be of not being subject to city politics and problems. On Sunday the 26th, Think Tank will host the first of a series of meetings focused on mapping the community assets of Germantown – assets being anything from where to get a bite to eat to where to buy tools. Warner said she is interested in studying the community’s “structures of support” – local entities that help Germantown function but aren’t necessarily recorded historically, such as the Germantown Babysitting co-op.
All are invited to view Germantown City Hall, but actually using the space for scheduling events and holding meetings is reserved for people who live in Germantown.
The organizers’ plans include hanging artwork by local artists in the central hallway, opening a café and a lending library, offering free photocopy services, and offering the rotunda for group meetings and performances. The artists have few specific goals for the project; it’s more of a vehicle for the community to revitalize itself. How the project shapes up depends on how the community responds over the course of the Hidden City Festival.
“It’s still pretty open, which is in a way exciting,” Wick said. “Things are going to build as the project progresses, rather than starting with a bang and then leveling off.” “My basic plan,” the artist continued, “is see who shows up, see what they’re interested in talking about, and going from there. There’s a lot of ways this could go.”
The Hall a unique site with a long history
The Germantown Town Hall building, which has been out of use and locked up since 1998, is sandwiched between the Philadelphia Police 14th District and the Germantown High School. It stands out on Germantown Avenue as the only structure in the area with the grand, European-style architecture that one usually finds in Center City or in the Art Museum area of Philadelphia.
Built 150 years ago, just prior to Germantown’s incorporation into Philadelphia, it was never used as a real Town Hall. Still, the Hall was the center of civic life in Germantown for decades.
Located behind an unglamorous bus stop, with chain link fences closing it off and port-a-potties on one side, the Town Hall has been nothing more than a sitting stoop for locals waiting for the bus since it went out of use as a municipal building in 1998. Old cubicles, paperwork and miscellaneous garbage from the 1998 occupants who apparently left in a hurry can still be found inside. Volunteers spent hours scrubbing the Town Hall to make it usable for the festival, but most of the building is still closed off to the public.
The artists behind this project are passionate about giving Germantown residents a place and a reason to come together and reactivate this lost civic space.
“The broader invitation to the community is that they use this as a civic space,” Warner said. “Everybody understands scarcity. Germantown High School is slated to close. So come on in, and let’s talk about that.”
For more information about events held as part of Germantown City Hall, visit http://www.gtowncityhall.net or festival.hiddencityphila.org. All Hidden City Festival sites will be open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 7 p.m., for the length of the festival, from May 23 to June 30.