The area around 15th Street at Ridge Avenue is practically vacant during the middle of the day. Aside from a few people who live in the area and walk the streets or those who own the few businesses at that end of Ridge, there usually isn’t much activity.
Now fast forward to the hours after the sun goes down and take another look at the location. Between some boarded-up, abandoned homes sits a building that transforms at the stroke of 10 p.m. – The Arts Garage. With dancing lights projected on the empty buildings at its sides and the steady thump of music emanating from the bass-driven speakers inside its bar, The Arts Garage is impossible to miss after dark.
“It’s cool,” said Torre Mattison, a promoter who has worked with The Arts Garage since January, “The thing I like about The Arts Garage is that the people are great and it’s always a great party. Some of the other places in the city can be a little aggressive. There’s just always a good vibe here. The owner’s cool, everyone that works here is cool – it’s like a big family, really.”
Every night of the week, The Arts Garage hosts a different themed dance party. From reggae to old school hip-hop, the venue plays music that you don’t always hear at other locations throughout the city.
“I had heard about The Arts Garage before and it had a pretty good reputation so I was excited to come here,” said DJ Freedom, who has been spinning at the venue’s dance party, Release, since March. ”It’s what made me decide to come here. It had a good reputation as an artsy place. It’s well respected, different and it had played host to a number of respectable house music events.”
The venue, opened in 2006 by its owner Ola Solanke, isn’t just a dance party every night of the week. It also serves as a blank canvas for anyone that feels he or she has something worth showing an audience.
“The Arts Garage is a performance venue for emerging artists. It’s a place that they can come to showcase their work,” said Solanke, “The concept came out of the fact that there are a lot of universities for the arts and schools of art in Philadelphia. Often times, many of the students’ and graduates’ work is not always seen outside of the academic environment. So, we wanted to create a space off campus where artists can actually come out and showcase their work and maybe in the same breath, be able to make money.”
The Arts Garage has worked with students from various universities around the city, including the University of the Arts, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. While the main purpose is to give students and artists a place to showcase their work, Solanke also uses it to teach entrepreneurship skills to those who don’t already have them.
“We not only want them looking at how to manage their production budget, but we also want them to look at how to actually show an event and how to make a profit from it,” said Solanke.
While The Arts Garage is helping to give artists another venue to host their work, it also seems to have become a beacon of hope for a neglected area of the city.
“In a way, we have become the anchor project for the revitalization of the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor. We bring people here, to this neighborhood, that otherwise would not want to venture out to this area,” said Solanke.
The Arts Garage’s manager, Darien Bagley, agreed and discussed what he thought it brought to the community.
“My understanding is that the whole initial idea with The Arts Garage and this community was to beautify it,” said Bagley, “We’re not just a nightclub; we’re a performance space. So, the idea was to bring art and culture to an area that seems to be ravaged by drugs and suspicious activity. This place – just in its presence – it has to contribute to this area in a positive way.”
Tommy Hogans, a friend of the venue’s regular DJs and occasional attendee of the dance parties, feels that it will help the youth in the area as well.
“[The art] is really good for the community and then you kind of get a duel purpose out of the building,” he said, “They’re able to show the kids running around that there is something better.”
Since its opening in 2006, The Arts Garage has survived in a time and a place where many could possibly expect to see the project fail. The venue has had its fair share of ups and downs but has proven that it has a good purpose and is here to stay. Those involved with the project also have high hopes for what it can possibly become in the future.
“Overall, I do have high hopes for what it will be,” Solanke said. “We’ve already marked the ground in terms of what this area could be and what this building could stand for. It’s just a matter of hanging in there and riding the tide and seeing what happens.”
Bagley, the manager, agreed. “I hope and I totally except The Arts Garage to become a legendary spot,” he said, “the type of place that, when people come to town from other countries, from other cities and states, that when they come here they in some way or another hear about it and say, ‘We gotta stop by The Arts Garage.’ The music is amazing here. I just expect it to be one of those spaces that’s just like Silk City. I want it to have a rep like Silk City.”
From what The Arts Garage has accomplished so far, it seems that it can definitely accomplish what those involved with it hope for. With an upstairs capable of holding 500 people expected to be open in the near future, the venue can only be open to more opportunities. There are also plans to make the upstairs handicap accessible, which is practically unheard of at any other venue in the city.
Although the area The Arts Garage is located in may be intimidating to some, the atmosphere and people that come to the venue may come as a pleasant surprise. First-time visitors like photographer Lori Nicolini only had good things to say.
“I love it. I think it’s a really great venue and there’s a really great vibe here,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve been here and we went in and danced and everyone is just having a good time. It’s a really good spot. I’ve never been here, but I’d come here again.”
To find out more about The Arts Garage, visit the venue’s website.