Play House Shines Spotlight on Potential of Philadelphia’s Vacant Land
21 October 2011 |
When Marianne Bernstein was a little girl, her mother eschewed regular toys. Instead, she was given a simple wooden cube with a hinged door - a playhouse - and there had free rein to invent her world. She has been reinventing her playhouse in city lots ever since.
In 1999, she persuaded the mayor of New Haven, Conn., John DeStefano, to give her keys to a needle-filled parcel on Chapel Street. She turned it into a vanguard space for public art. Two years ago, for DesignPhiladelphia, she installed the Welcome House in LOVE Park. Now, on Philadelphia’s seminal vacant lot, on Broad Street across from the Kimmel Center, Bernstein has repurposed her playhouse, this time as an aluminum performance cube and four-sided video monitor running films that document artists’ interventions on vacant lots throughout our city.
Bernstein’s Play House, which she designed with Daryn Edwards of Interface Studio Architects, is part of a multimedia DesignPhiladelphia project that has transformed the Broad Street lot into the glimmering and forceful “This Is Not a Vacant Lot,” meant to reveal new possibilities for the transformation of the city’s more than 40,000 vacant parcels. “The idea,” she says, “is about what you can do in an empty lot when you don’t have any money.”
Bernstein is well-known in the art world as a pusher of boundaries. “They used to pat me on the head and say ‘dream on, little dreamer,’ ” she says, but “it’s almost like magic seeds. If you bring positive energy to a space, things change.”
This makes the art installation - with 250 PVC poles representing the geographic distribution of the 40,000 lots, installed by Edwards’ partner Brian Phillips and Julie Beckman of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design - a rather perfect microcosm of the city itself. With limited resources, Philadelphia faces a monumental problem: how to reorganize and reposition more than 3,000 acres of vacant land, which cost taxpayers $20 million annually to maintain, have drained property values by about $3.6 billion, and sap the life out of neighborhoods from Kingsessing to Kensington.
Philadelphia shows the scars of deindustrialization and economic recalibration perhaps more than any city but Detroit. In part because of a policy of working to conserve the industrial economy in the 1950s and ‘60s, the life of the factory neighborhood unraveled slowly, but now it is truly gone. And we are the inheritors of the mess.
In Philadelphia, the mess is particularly vexing, according to Rick Sauer, the executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. The slow unraveling means abandoned property is difficult to acquire en masse. Moreover, the portion of the vacant property that is publicly owned is fragmented among 17 agencies, each with different protocols, regulations, and processes for the disposition of land.
The scale of the problem and a groundswell of concern by Sauer and his neighborhood allies have pushed the Nutter administration to act. About a year ago, the Managing Director’s Office convened a working group, co-led by the Redevelopment Authority, to overhaul the city’s management of vacant land. “Get the land back into productive use, that is our guiding principle,” says Bridget Collins-Greenwald, the deputy managing director in charge of the initiative. The agency has beefed up code enforcement, begun reviewing tax policy, and created a single database, now public, that lists a significant portion of publicly held vacant property, owned by the RDA, the city’s Department of Public Property, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., and some of what is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The hope among many participants is that the database will be a first step toward placing all the publicly owned vacant property under single ownership in a land bank. In theory, single ownership will allow the city to sell parcels without unnecessary red tape and enable strategic acquisition of property in order to bundle large parcels. State legislation authorizing land banks failed last year, but officials here are hopeful enough that City Council has readied a bill, introduced by Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Bill Green, to create the land bank as soon as it is enabled by state law.
None of this means the problem will be easily solved. Indeed, the city’s database doesn’t include vacant industrial land or industrial buildings, and no inventory of defunct factories exists. And Sauer and other neighborhood activists worry that political momentum will end, leaving the city with a nice, though incomplete, database, and no mechanism for the strategic repositioning of property. “It took us 60 years to get this far,” says Beth Miller, director of the Community Design Collaborative, whose “Infill” project focuses on rethinking vacant parcels, “and it’s going to take more than one administration to figure it out. And anyway, who is going to be the steward? It has to be the neighbors.”
Miller’s point that top-down solutions are necessary but insufficient is echoed by Nora Lichtash, who directs the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), an organizing, advocacy, and development group that focuses its efforts on eastern North Philadelphia, a section of the city that is fully a quarter vacant. “There is no way government can address a problem of this magnitude,” and so, she says, “we need to be thinking about what happens after the database is running.” And that means who gets to decide how the land is used. “It’s about what’s equitable and for who and who gets to weigh in.”
In the spring, WCRP launched a Take Back Vacant Land Campaign to support the land bank and promote the idea of a community land trust, which gives communities the power to own, develop, and direct the use of land, with the intent that it remain affordable. “Even if you’re poor, you have the right to think about the future,” she says, “and we have an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t work.”
The experimenting has been going on in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods full force since the early 1990s, when community development corporations gained enough capacity to purchase land and try to redevelop it. Vacant land was a kind of lever, which gave neighborhood leaders some control by simply cleaning and maintaining the lots.
At that time, in the part of Kensington served by the New Kensington CDC, there were 1,100 vacant lots, most of which were trash-filled depositories for “short dumping.” “Land had absolutely no value,” says Sandy Salzman, the executive director of the CDC, “there were few businesses on Frankford Avenue, and those who were there were hidden behind plywood, prisoners.” One of the only groups to assert itself was the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, whose Philadelphia Green program seeded lot cleanups and gardens. Following this lead, New Kensington cleaned its worst lots, including the corner of Frankford and Montgomery Avenues, where Jersey barriers - the very symbol of urban dystopia - had been installed to curtail the dumping. Activists planted 100 trees one Saturday and removed the barriers.
That night, someone stole one of the trees. But the desired change had already occurred. Neighbors saw the theft and grabbed the tree out of the vandal’s car. Says Salzman: “That made us realize this neighborhood was turning around.”
“It’s a process that rarely goes smoothly or easily and it’s full of conflict,” notes WCRP’s lead organizer, Jill Feldstein, “but conflict is what builds community.”
It’s the conflict and the messiness that create the sense of possibility and opportunity with vacant land, says Dilip da Cunha, professor of landscape architecture at the Penn School of Design. Da Cunha thinks that notions of filling in the city lot by lot are outdated. We should think instead about the wider terrain, and this is just what such large-scale abandonment is offering.
“There is a fantastic infrastructure opportunity to rework the ground,” he says, “and the ground holds infinite possibilities.” To clarify his point, da Cunha suggests we reconsider the history of William Penn, who arrived on the bank of the Delaware without controlling any land and with settlers - sleeping in caves - awaiting his arrival. “Penn was opportunistic in how he handled it,” says da Cunha, negotiating, exploring, trading, “and yet we still describe the city as starting with the Penn plan. That’s rubbish. To think he had some view from the air.” Da Cunha means the genius of Philadelphia emerged in the very negotiation with the land. “From the messiness of what he saw, he invented the city.”
WCRP’s Feldstein says this same sense of open-ended possibility is precisely what makes today an exciting time. “The future of the city is really unwritten,” she says, “in a way that’s just not true of other East Coast cities, because there is so much land available. That’s the promise and that’s the opportunity.”
Bernstein, for one, is game. She’d like to see artists given grants to get to work on vacant land. She thinks the time is right - with the economy in flux and so much land in play - for risk taking. “You can’t just stay on the sidelines,” she says, “and hope no one’s going to get hurt.”
Photo by David Warren