Nestled between the 4200 block of Spruce Street’s famous Victorian-style homes lies the University City Arts League. UCAL, as it is often known, has been a staple in the University City community for the past 45 years. On Sunday March 18, 2012, the arts league hosted the Chili Bowl, a charity event that offered food, drink and pottery to those in attendance.
The event, now in its third year, included dozens of handmade bowls created for the event and sold for $20 for guests to enjoy all-you-can-eat chili in handmade bowls from UCAL’s very own pottery studio. The charity event hopes to raise enough funds to support renovation projects within UCAL itself, in hopes of drawing more students to its arts classes and programs.
The Chili Bowl includes a cook-off where both professional chefs and amateurs vie for their chili to be voted as the best. While the neighborhood remained calm and silent on a mild Sunday afternoon, the crowd grew larger and larger at 4226 Spruce St. Thirteen contestants are competing this year, while roughly 300 guests are expected to attend and support UCAL.
A major part of the proceeds will go to improve the league’s pottery studio, including adding LED lights, which are eco-friendly and will help make the area more inviting. Pottery is the most popular class offered at UCAL.
The organization holds about seventy classes per term, offering painting, drawing, pottery, dance and much more to over 4,000 students each year. The classes are not limited to just art-based classes – UCAL also offers courses in Chinese and Spanish. Noreen Shanfelter, executive director of the Arts League, says that the strong diversity among the students reflects the demographics of University City as a whole.
“The demographics are actually like the demographics of the ware, we actually have a pretty diverse crowd here in University City in our after-school programs, a third of our kids are Chinese, 40 percent are African-American and the remaining students are Caucasian,” Shanfelter said.
While UCAL aims to serve and educate members of all ages, Shanfelter noted that there has been a recent change to the league’s priorities. “In the past five to seven years, our program has turned its focus to children. We have about 200 kids a week coming into our center, mostly through arts after-school programs, audio and visual arts and so forth.”
While most of the attendees of the Chili Bowl included children that belonged to the league’s programs and their parents, others included local residents of nearby University City blocks and neighborhoods. One notable guest was James R. Roebuck, who represents the 188th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Roebuck, who is also the chairman of the House Education Committee, stressed the importance of the efforts of programs and organizations such as UCAL, which are vital to the city.
“It’s local, it’s here, and it’s something that relates directly to young people in the neighborhood, along with adults and senior citizens. You come here and you take lessons in dance, in pottery, in art and you can do all sorts of things right here where you live,” Roebuck said.
Board member Greg Salisbury, who also cooked chili for the event, agrees. He praised the Chili Bowl and its ability to create an interaction between neighborhood residents and local artists.
“It’s a great event, it really brings the neighborhood together, it gives everybody a chance to meet the people behind the University City Arts League, behind the clay and the pottery they eat out of and drink out of,” Salisbury said.
Like Roebuck, members of the surrounding neighborhoods also praised UCAL’s programs and efforts. Grace O’Donell, who used to create pottery at UCAL when she was younger, now brings her nieces to the same classes.
“You ever throw pottery?” she asked. “Most kids don’t get the chance to… when you have the chance to support an organization that is that complete in its artistic exposure, it’s a good idea to do it. The arts are not well supported during the recession so you have to come out.”
Arts programs usually fall victims to budget cuts in schools as they face harsh economic times, and receive little support in many neighborhoods. Yet, the University City Arts League’s classes and programs continue to thrive and expand due to a highly supportive University City community.