I awoke that day feeling excited.It was the morning I planned to partake in a bicycle tour of West and Southwest Philadelphia. A city planning professor and his students organized the ride; the motive of the ride was to discuss environmental justice and urban renewal, using the areas traveled as a case study of sorts. New to my West Philadelphia neighborhood, I thought it a good opportunity to learn about my surrounding community. The ride began well; the city planner discussed the history of development along the Schuylkill River and the history of Woodland Cemetery and surrounding neighborhoods.
We stopped at the intersection of South Hanson Street and Saybrook Street to discuss urban renewal in the area. The professor explained how the program for renewal of the area would be extremely progressive and modeled after the Urban Renewal Program in East Baltimore led by Johns Hopkins. My experience living in Baltimore taught me that the program discussed was, in fact, problematic and not much short of a sugar-coated program of gentrification. I raised this issue to the professor (he cringed at the mentioning of the ‘g’ word) and asked what the outcome would mean for the current community and residents that still inhabited the dilapidated structures around us. I must have struck a nerve with this inquiry, as what followed was a 45-minute argument between the two of us. The issue was gentrification. The professor’s interests in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood had nothing to do with its inhabitants or strengthening the community. He explained how the economy of the area would become rich and blooming with the construction of new real estate. My probing yielded no real answers, he only produced monetary statistics for what would be an entirely different neighborhood, one completely alien and separate from the current one we stood in. Nevertheless, I insisted and stressed that the problematic issues in blighted communities were not being solved, merely pushed around and tucked away in favor of cheap real estate. He lost his composure, admitting his approval of the renewal programs major universities in the area had done in the past and stressed his disdain for the communities and people they had pushed out and shut out. I was appalled.
The entire time, the rest of the group watched as we argued. Perhaps sensing the ugly turn the professor had taken, one rider stood up to speak…merely to defend the professor and rearticulate what he meant in more politically correct terms. I was appalled. After over 45 minutes, we had gone in a complete circle, except now I was alone against two. In the interest of the rest of the group who were mere spectators to the incident, we agreed to end the discussion and continue the bike ride. I left in defiance.
These words have toned down the tension, negativity, and intensity of what occurred; complete accuracy would seem like hyperbole and would only benefit to defame the city planner’s character at the expense of the issues at hand. After gathering materials from the area, I decided to memorialize the argument. Bringing all materials and prepared mortar from my studio in backpacks, my friend (thank you Kurt Freyer) and I retraced the bike ride and stopped where the argument took place to create the monument in the photograph. I created the structure in about the same duration of time as the argument, using all the materials we could carry with us and those found there. The attire I found and wore perhaps helped to avoid police intervention but also attracted questions of passerby’s to what I was making. This opened a dialogue to change in the area.
36 x 36 x 12 inches
Outdoor Installation and Performance
Performance and building of Monument on site where
argument was held on
Gentrification in West Philadelphia.
Special thanks to Kurt Freyer.
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