W. Phila. artist fights city plan to buy his studio

James Dupree outside his studio in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia, decorated with imagesof persecution. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
James Dupree outside his studio in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia, decorated with imagesof persecution. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 28, 2014

James Dupree says city officials are trying to pave paradise and put up a supermarket.

Dupree, a renowned Philadelphia artist, is embroiled in a bitter back-and-forth with the city over the fate of his art studio, an 8,600-square-foot building that takes up nearly a block along Haverford Avenue in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia.

The property was seized in December 2012 by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The authority condemned a two-block stretch through eminent domain, a legal process that allows government to take private property, pay the owner, and develop the land for public use.

When the authority seized the Mantua property, it said the surrounding neighborhood was in desperate need of a supermarket. "It's a food desert over there," authority spokesman Paul Chrystie said Friday.

The city offered Dupree $640,000 for his space. But Dupree, who recently had his studio appraised for $2.2 million, took that as an insult.

"These laws that they applied to take my property are so unfair and abusive," the artist said Friday in an interview at his Haverford Avenue studio. "The issue here isn't about money. It's about the fact that the city is trying to take away my rights to do whatever I see fit with my personal and private property."

On Thursday, more than a dozen heavy hitters from the arts world and politics came to Dupree's defense, cosigning a letter to the city blasting its plan to bulldoze the property and replace it with a grocery store and parking lot.

"Seizing James Dupree's art studio is not only unconstitutional and a gross abuse of eminent domain, it is unconscionable," said the letter, addressed to Mayor Nutter and City Council.

In addition to members of the Philadelphia art community, the letter was signed by representatives from a range of political groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the David and Charles Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, and the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg.

"The diverse group behind the coalition underscores how outrageous the city's actions are," Melinda Haring, activism manager for the Institute for Justice, in Arlington, Va., said. The libertarian institute represented Susette Kelo in Kelo v. City of New London, a 2005 Supreme Court case that set the legal standards for eminent domain.

That decision also fueled a national movement against eminent domain, which has drawn money and support from conservative groups.

Matthew Brouillette, president and chief executive of the Commonwealth Foundation, said the dispute boiled down to a simple property-rights issue. "I think everybody would agree that there's a legitimate use for eminent domain when it serves a public purpose," he said Friday, "but handing over private property to serve private developers clearly does not serve that purpose."

Dupree's art studio, once a decrepit and run-down service garage that he bought for $183,000 in 2005, is hard to miss in Mantua. The exterior, once a nondescript red-brick facade, now greets passersby with blasts of bright and bold colors in a neighborhood marked by boarded-up houses and empty lots.

Signs with phrases like "Hands Off My Business" and "Eminent Domain Abuse" dot the borders of the front door. Then there's the mural of Dupree being lynched - a symbol, he said, of what the city is trying to do to him.

The studio, a 10-room maze that seems to go on forever, houses the life accomplishments of Dupree, 63, a University of Pennsylvania-educated painter and sculptor who has five pieces on permanent display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"I put eight years of sweat equity into a building that's now my private artistic sanctuary and haven," he said. "I'm going to fight this."

City officials said they hoped they could work out an agreement with Dupree to redevelop the property. "I definitely want a grocery store," Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, whose district includes Mantua, said Friday. "I'm for them working it out."

Dupree, though, said he had no plans to leave Mantua, which President Obama this month designated one of the nation's first five Promise Zones - a new federal program aimed at reducing poverty, cutting unemployment, and enhancing education in blighted neighborhoods.

The artist said he hadn't ruled out the possibility of giving up his studio if the city offers a price he considers fair. But he said he did not expect that to happen. "I built this place up myself," Dupree said. "I'm not just going to roll over and die."


szweifler@philly.com

215-854-2619 @szweifler

Inquirer staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.

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