Imagine a place surrounded by stark urban blight where you hear the bright sounds of music, laughter of children and see engaging artwork, such as shiny mosaics and colorful murals, on all the walls around you. The warmth from dozens of smiling faces seems like a summer breeze blowing the tall shade trees surrounding this place.Is this place a figment of day dreams? No, this place exists, living and breathing in North Philadelphia.
The Village of Arts and Humanities, or the Village as it is fondly referred to, sits near the corner of Germantown Avenue and 10th Street. It is a cove that includes several sets of row homes, some abandoned and some occupied but all painted in bright, cheerful colors. This place is a mosaic oasis.
Liz Grimaldi, executive director of the Village, walks around the comfortable urban nook, smiling. She strolled around during a special day for the Village.
“We are celebrating our 25th anniversary,” Grimaldi said, smiling and waving at several children.
Percussion sounds drift through the center of the Village as musicians beat drums on a nearby stage. Singers bellow Afro-Brazilian melodies as young men dance to the rhythm of the music in the style of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines dance, martial arts and sports. The sound from this performance only enhances and authenticates the Aboriginal, Ethiopian and Yoruba mosaic images depicted on the concrete walls that enclose the Village.
The organization is hosting the Kujenga Pamoja Community Arts Festival to commemorate 25 years of service and fellowship with the community. Kujenga Pamoja means “together we build.” The title seems fitting as the Village prepares to honor Lilly Yeh, its founder, for her innovative method of building communities through art.
Yeh, a Chinese artist, traveled and taught artistic expression all over the world. But she is most known for the urban transformation she facilitated in North Philadelphia.
“She is fearless,” said Grimaldi. “Her belief in the power of the art is what attracted people to want to work with her.”
The Village was started in 1986 when dancer and choreographer Arthur Hall asked Yeh to paint a mural and build a park on vacant land next to his Ile Ife Dance studio. Yeh was teaching at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts at the time. Like too many North Philadelphia neighborhoods, the blocks surrounding Hall’s dance studio were suffering. Population decreases over the years took their toll on this neighborhood leaving many homes abandoned and community residents– about 90% African-American– vulnerable to crime.
But as Yeh designed and created Ile Ife Park she transformed the neighborhood by engaging community residents. Some were addicted to drugs but were able to see through their drugged haze to help Yeh create artistic masterpieces. Some residents, like James “Big Man” Maxton, were able to kick their drug habit altogether.
“My brother, affectionately known as “Big” was an entrepreneur, artist, socialist and all around people person,” said Frank McCracken. “He developed the artwork you see around here.”
Frank McCracken lives just feet away from one of the buildings owned by the Village. Each time he looks around at the artwork surrounding his family home, he smiles.
“He was a genius,” said McCracken. “He didn’t begin this until later in life but it was always there. When he did it, he exploded.”
Maxton discovered his talent for mosaics while working with Yeh. She would paint images and Maxton would cover them in colorful mosaics.
“He taught lots and lots of people how to build, how to design and how to create,” said McCracken. “He taught them chess and an appreciation of the arts, really.”
Maxton helped Yeh build Meditation Park, Angel Alley, Lions Park and Tree Hall, all located near the Village. The artistic impressions of Maxton are easily evident in the mosaic seating areas, walls and sculptures of the Village. Big Man died in 2005.
“Anywhere you go, even though he’s been gone for a few years now, you can see his fingerprint,” McCracken said. “Big Man was able to capture the attention of every one in the community. He was a pied piper.”
Yeh’s work with community artists like Maxton helped transform a once blighted area of North Philadelphia into a haven for youth, community fellowship and art.
The Village’s impact has been evolving over the years,” said Grimaldi. “Now we have twelve parks, afternoon art programs primarily for teenagers and we have other art organizations come here to provide their services.”
The Village has also evolved into a safe place where other arts and organizations bring their services to the people who live in the community. Spells Writing Center, a nonprofit that provides educational support to school age students, is located within the Village. There is also a computer center funded by the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Kamau Blakney teaches capoiera at a recreational center near North 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. They came to the Village as part of the festival.
“Capoeira is a part of the arts,” Blakney said. “We were invited to share and expose people to capoeira as a means of self expression.”
LaQuan Fields, 16, grew up near the Village. He enrolled in programs at the facility eleven years ago. When he fell in love with performing as a clown, some of the teachers suggested that he start a business.
“When you have a teen who wants to dress up as a clown, how do you support that,” Grimaldi said.
Fields now operates a party service, Party Clown Entertainment, where he performs as a clown for parties and other events.
“I do birthday parties, corporate events,” said Fields. “If the circus wants me, I work with them. I do balloon twisting, magic tricks, a little dancing.”
“I think this place is good for the kids,” said “Miss Wanda.” Wanda traveled from South Philadelphia to the Village to attend the Festival and did not want to reveal her last name. Her family lives in the neighborhood and she plans to enroll her teenage son into the program.
Wanda smiled as her 2-year-old grandson, Khalif, watched older children ride skateboards nearby.
“It’s good for the summer time, so that the kids can stay out of trouble,” Wanda said. “It helps the kids strive for things greater than themselves.”
In addition to being a sanctuary for families who live near the Village, the organization has expanded its reach to the entire North Philadelphia community. The non-profit maintains hundreds of vacant properties throughout the city.
“We take care of more than a million square feet of vacant land,” she said.
One example is a property located behind Alder Street.
“These are newly demolished properties,” said Grimaldi. “Because of our stance that so much of this is public land and is owned by several people we didn’t want to build a fence with barbed wire.
Instead, they built a fence made from Willow tree branches.
The makeshift fence is as welcoming and unexpected as the burst of child laughter that erupts as a group of grade school age children run by. They chase each other and climb on the blue, white and pink mosaic bench in the heart of the Village. They are oblivious to the city and focused on the music, the fun and the fellowship.
They are happy that this place exists in North Philadelphia.