New report finds small but growing arts community in battered Mantua

At 44th and Market a row house sports a mural of an elder couple and their city vegetable garden. " ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
At 44th and Market a row house sports a mural of an elder couple and their city vegetable garden. " ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Posted: August 27, 2014

In neighborhoods such as Fishtown and Northern Liberties, arts and artists stimulated big growth and new vitality.

In battered Mantua - the heart of a new federal Promise Zone - it can seem as if the arts departed with the people.

Now, a team of Drexel University faculty and students is offering a plan to support a growing number of artists as a way to lift an area pulverized by crime, poverty, and unemployment.

"It's not art for art's sake, it's art for the sake of the good of the neighborhood," said Andrew Zitcer, an assistant teaching professor at Drexel who studies urban policy. "There's a tremendous amount of energy on the ground."

The study, "A Fragile Ecosystem: The Role of Arts and Culture in Philadelphia's Mantua, Powelton Village, and West Powelton Neighborhoods," was released Monday. Zitcer and two other researchers spent five months conducting surveys and interviewing more than 450 people.

The project was not targeted at the Promise Zone, selected by the White House as an area that deserves extra federal attention, but focused on a smaller section within.

It produced surprises. While the area might seem to be an arts desert, it contains a number of organizations, including Mighty Writers, Lil' Filmmakers, and the Gwen Bye Dance Center.

George Stevens, president of LA21, the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association, said he had not seen the new study, but had no doubt that the arts can help revive the area.

"It can have a tremendous impact, as a bridge, bringing different energies, different economies and social situations, a tremendous 'listening' to the community," he said. "We recognize the artists in the neighborhood as contributing a lot."

One problem, the study said, is that arts groups generally have not found means to connect with community organizations in ways that benefit both, such as matching a dance troupe with a church auditorium. Pairing need and resource is difficult without a central communications system.

Researcher Julie Hawkins, director of Drexel's arts administration program, said people want arts in ways that meet neighborhood needs. An after-school arts program, she said, is great for young people - and can also enhance their safety.

Another challenge is money. Parts of the area are extremely poor. Local arts groups often operate on small budgets, and may end up competing against one another for limited grants.

The study found residents wanted arts and culture programs that:

Engage several generations at once.

Build job skills.

Use existing spaces and employ local artists.

Explore community history and identity.

One of the city's most interesting recent arts projects took place in June in Mantua, with Funeral for a Home. A crumbling rowhouse was knocked down after an elaborate funeral, undertaken to honor its history in a city where demolitions are common.

That came five months after the White House announced that part of West Philadelphia would become one of five "Promise Zones" nationwide, chosen in a collaborative effort to end a long decline.

No new federal money is attached. Instead, the government promised to award bonus points in competitions for aid, giving the area a better chance to win government money, and to work with neighborhood groups to attack crime, housing ills, and unemployment.

Among 35,315 residents in the Promise Zone, the poverty rate is 51 percent. Unemployment is 14 percent. Nearly 15 percent of the houses are vacant, double the city average.

At the same time, the zone has advantages, including energetic neighborhood groups and proximity to Center City, 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Please Touch Museum.

The zone covers all of Mantua and all or parts of Powelton, West Powelton, and Belmont, bounded by the Schuylkill to the east, Girard Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south.

The Drexel study examined a smaller area, bounded by Market Street to the south, Mantua Avenue and Parrish Street to the north, 40th Street to the west, and the Schuylkill to the east.

"Not every street needs to be Avenue of the Arts," Zitcer said. "You don't build it as a destination for the [region]. You build it for the kids, for 14,000 people. They still need arts and culture in our lives, and that's what they told us."



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