The arts and economic development work together on West Philly corridors

In October and November, hundreds of residents and visitors flocked to the Lower Lancaster Avenue galleries, restaurants, public spaces, and businesses.

They were here for LOOK! on Lancaster Avenue, a two-month program sponsored by the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) and University City District (UCD), that brought art installations to the windows and storefronts of vacant buildings, group art shows to galleries and public spaces, and public performances to various locations along the Avenue.

“Lancaster Avenue is a perfect example, where art can be an intermediate step between a vacant building and a completely thriving local economy,” explains Joe McNulty, Commercial Corridor Manager with University City District. “The Look on Lancaster project changed people’s perspectives about those blocks of Lancaster that have been empty and desolate for years. It was a way to bring people walking back down here and say: ‘This could be a really thriving corridor.’”

Lancaster Avenue is not alone. Across the SCI-West target area, organizations are using the arts to strengthen development on commercial corridors. Corridor managers like McNulty work with residents, businesses, business associations, and Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to revitalize the commercial corridors in West Philadelphia: Lancaster Avenue, 40th Street, Spruce Street, Baltimore Avenue, and 45th and Walnut Streets.

These stories of creative efforts on West Philadelphia commercial corridors reveal the effectiveness of including arts initiatives into any commercial development strategy.

Lancaster Avenue

LOOK! on Lancaster attracted hundreds of people to visit Lancaster Avenue, view the work of local artists, and spend their money at businesses all along the corridor. Its other benefits are real, but less quantifiable. “Events like these create interest in the area, and promote a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” said McNulty.

LOOK! on Lancaster also draws attention to an already engaged art community. Artists around Lancaster Avenue have been active in neighborhood revitalization for nearly four decades: renovating properties, exhibiting art, and performing locally.

“Having folks like that who really bought into their own community, with their own sweat equity and real money, promoting art has been really valuable for Lancaster Ave,” said McNulty.

Another SCI-West partner, the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) promotes the arts through a larger event. For the past five years, (PEC) has hosted the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival. The event attracts hundreds of families to Saunders Park with live jazz, dance, spoken word, art exhibits, workshops, and an open-air market. The annual event celebrates the rich history of arts in Philadelphia, stimulates the local economy, and energizes the community.

In warmer months, PEC and UCD host Second Friday events on Lancaster Avenue to showcase galleries and exhibitions. They dropped the event a few years ago due to budgetary restrictions, but have since revived it on a shoestring budget, citing its many benefits for the corridor.

A number of creative organizations have served as artistic anchors for the Avenue as well.

Audiences from all over attend performances at The Community Education Center (CEC), founded nearly four decades ago by community members looking to use art and culture to inspire creativity and goodwill. “Art enriches the lives of families in this community,” says Terri Shockley, [position] of the CEC. “The arts are about making individuals and communities stronger and more resilient.”

The Gwendolyn Bye Dance Studio has also engaged young people in dance classes since 1986. A local coffee shop, The Green Line Café, showcases the work of local artists. A number of other galleries and studio spaces provide space for artists to create and exhibit work.

Ultimately, these artistic efforts are changing the conversation about Lancaster Avenue. “The message is,” says McNulty, “That this is a viable neighborhood. This is a place where you could raise a child, you could open a business. You could do anything here.”

40th Street

At the crossroads of historically distinct communities, 40th Street embodies the diversity of West Philadelphia. Here the arts play a critical role in speaking across boundaries of race, class background, and generation.

The corridor is anchored by two key arts organizations: the Rotunda (at 4014 Walnut St) and the Artists In Residence (AIR) program (at 4007  Chestnut St). (See “Creativity as Engagement” for more on their efforts)

It was also on 40th Street that West Philadelphia Arts Connect was born. The collaboration of artists and arts organizations across West Philly originated from Friends of 40th Street meetings.

Looking forward, UCD and PEC plan to collaborate on several projects around 40th Street. The organizations hope to encourage pedestrian traffic and development, including public art installations that will coincide with tree planting and beautification efforts. Projects will include pole painting, public sculpture, and art installations on and in vacant buildings.

Baltimore Avenue

The artistic efforts and commercial amenities on Baltimore Avenue improve the quality of life for residents across West Philadelphia.

In February, West Philly was one of 20 cities to host a Fun-A-Day art show, organized by the Artclash Collective and exhibited at Studio 34 on Baltimore Ave. Thousands of people visited the two-day exhibition.

Even arts businesses are finding a home in West Philly. Aside from the galleries on Lancaster, there’s Vix Emporium, a “general store” selling the handmade gifts and art of mostly local artists using a consignment system. Emily Dorn, manager at Vix, says, “This area needed a place like this: a place to buy a gift.” Because these gifts are local, special, and practical, Vix is creating a win-win for local artists and consumers.

UCD promotes the arts on Baltimore Avenue in many ways. They organize Second Saturdays, a monthly arts fair outside Dock Street Brewing Company that brings foot traffic to the neighborhood and helps support local artists. Additionally, they have invited artists to contribute designs for new Baltimore corridor banners.

There are clear benefits to the arts, McNulty says, including engaging residents in community issues, improving the image of the neighborhood, attracting residents and visitors to patronize local businesses, and inspiring entrepreneurs to open businesses that can serve community needs.

“Ultimately, we are looking to make our neighborhoods more livable.”

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