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:
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.