(Rachel visits a block party and finds inspiration in the community activities and spirit. –the artblog editors)
Pearl Street resembles anything but its name. Dark, narrow, and lined with dumpsters and loading docks, it feels claustrophobic and uninviting. Most Philadelphians probably experience the street as a tiny artery in the neighborhood’s navigation system, a shortcut to and fro, or, for the community’s homeless, a potential space to sleep. Along the street’s four blocks stretching from 10th to Broad Streets in the North Chinatown neighborhood, are cultural organizations, tech offices, Catholic grade schools, and auto repair shops. Luxury apartments are moving in. For the community art center Asian Arts Initiative, whose back door opens onto the alley, Pearl Street has every potential to live up to its name.
On Saturday, September 28th, Pearl Street was transformed into a bustling art experiment. The gritty concrete was painted bright neon yellow, artists set up interactive installations, and community members went to town constructing and painting tables and chairs in vibrant pink and green hues. The Block Party’s intent was to celebrate the rich cultural diversity and creativity in the North Chinatown/Callowhill neighborhood, while transforming Pearl Street into a welcoming and productive space.
Collaboration with a landscape architect
The community collaborated with Oakland, California based landscape architect Walter Hood to bring about Pearl Street’s transformation. With their interests in community development and citizen participation, the two were an ideal fit. After experiencing the site and creating visual realizations of the street’s potential, Hood conducted a furniture-building workshop that led to the construction of community tables and chairs. Young and old spent the block party busily painting away, sharing buckets of paint, brushes and rags. The Mural Arts Program with artist Benjamin Volta also dove into Pearl Street’s transformation, applying cutout pearls to symbolize musical annotations, atoms and electrons, signaling the creative potential of the tiny street. The dark and gritty alleyway was remade into a vibrant and colorful space that fostered community and imagination.
Social Practice Lab and pearls on Pearl St.
The Initiative’s Social Practice Lab artists-in-residence provided further installations and activities. The mobile teacart, Hot Tea, asked festival-goers, “What are your top three places/memories/moments/things in this neighborhood?” and provided participants with a small map to diagram their thoughts. Collete Fu worked with the Overcomers at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission to create a series of stunning pop-up cards that incorporated candid reflections and local narratives. And Steve Parker collaborated with local sculptor and musician Jebney Lewis in the construction of instruments from found materials, conducting workshops with students from Asian Arts Initiative’s Youth Arts Workshop.
Many groups collaborated and contributed to the event
The parking lot on 12th and Vine also became a bustling space for art-making, performance and community activism. Participants were invited to paint trash found along the neighborhood’s streets in a vibrant yellow, representative of the transformation along the alleyway. Fleisher Art Memorial’s Color Wheels had stations for art activities; the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society had a booth for craft making; and the artist-run spaces that fill the building at 319 N. 11th Street, including PRACTICE, Vox Populi and Marginal Utility, also participated. Local performers such as the Philadelphia Suns Lion Dancers and Hip Hop Fundamentals had young audience members cheering all afternoon.
A joy-filled day
The day felt joyous, celebratory and optimistic. A coming together of cultural organizations, ranging from the large-scale institution to the artist-run gallery, the block party was emblematic of the many thriving partnerships at work across the city’s cultural and civic communities. All were provided a space to represent their respective missions and aesthetics, while also embracing a collaborative community voice.
Ultimately, the block party succeeded not merely because it elevated an unused space, but because it brought the neighborhood with it. Everyone was welcome – artists, youth, neighbors, and the merely curious. While celebratory, the event was also a powerful reaction to a difficult reality, a claiming of place in the face of a changing landscape and evolving neighborhood identity. A festival that went beyond food trucks and street vendors, the Pearl Street Block Party initiated thoughtful dialogue while creating a space to enable public creativity, urban revitalization and community testimony. The festival culminated in a gathering together for the evening meal, further reinforcing the community’s enthusiasm, urgency and shared responsibility for this small street with giant potential.
The Pearl Street Block Party was made possible with funding from: ArtPlace, the Educational Foundation of America, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and PNC Arts Alive. The event was organized by the Asian Arts Initiative in partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, with the support of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association and many individual artists and contributors. For a full list of participating community and programming partners, click here.