GUEST BLOG: Brad Vassallo is a SafeGrowth Advocate having taught POP-up placemaking and community development as part of a SafeGrowth team. He has worked in community development in Philadelphia for the past few years and offers here a case study from that city.
Philadelphia is a city of 40,000 vacant lots. Like many post-industrial cities, it fell victim to a mass exodus of middle-class residents in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, the 40-plus-year drought in tax revenues has taken its toll, with neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia ailing from high crime rates and rampant vacancy. These conditions have had a torturous effect on neighborhood quality of life.
As a former student at Temple University in community development, I witnessed first-hand the effects of this multi-generational disinvestment. Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM) is a neighborhood nonprofit serving residents of all color and creed, with a mission of helping families. This is no easy task in a neighborhood commonly referred to as "the Badlands" due to its high frequency of violent crime.
TACKLING THE BADLANDS
As part of my degree, I found myself working with APM during the beginning of a new creative placemaking grant. The goal of the Pop Up Market Place (PUMP), was to reactivate a vacant lot at the corner of 6th Street and Susquehanna Avenue. The 11,000-square-foot lot was slated to become a youth housing facility with ground-floor retail, but the development cycle often takes five or more years. Our task was to reimagine the space as a gateway for a downtrodden stretch of Germantown Avenue. The project involved several layers:
- Engage the local community in a conversation about the future of Germantown Avenue using the PUMP site as a centerpiece. Similar to the SafeGrowth model, we operated on a To-For-With-By model; each level represents a greater level of civic participation, with the pinnacle being those projects that are done with or by the community. We assembled a diverse steering committee and arrived at three focus areas: Crime and Safety, Jobs, and Youth Engagement.
- Using feedback from the Steering Committee, we offered regular programming on the site to draw foot traffic and build awareness. Our events included an end-of-school summer block party, neighborhood potluck, and movie nights. Children flocked to the site for water balloon fights and piragua on a hot summer day. Neighborhoods like this have endured a great deal of trauma. By holding a small community event on the project site, we began to strip away some of the negative association people had with that location.
- We led entrepreneurship training to build capacity. In a neighborhood like ours, educational attainment is low, making traditional employment difficult for most residents. Starting a small business is a more attractive option for first-generation immigrant families. By offering free training we were able to tap into our neighborhood's entrepreneurial spirit and offer an alternative income stream.
- The final step was to identify a few promising candidates from our training with whom we could launch a business incubator on the site. Brick-and-mortar businesses have significant overhead expenses. By repurposing a few recycled shipping containers for micro-retail, we could lower the barrier to entry for these new business owners and provide a safe haven for residents to shop locally and explore.
Despite problems moving this version of the project forward, we learned how to revive vacant land and encourage business activities. We also learned that this unique design style was easy to mobilize, it could move from parcel to parcel, and it provided a beta-test for local businesses as an alternative form of entrepreneurialism.