Building community with Sonic Sunsets at the Discovery Center

4 minute read
Aaron Pond created Sonic Sunsets to help grow an historic Philly neighborhood. (Photo by Jessica Brown)
Aaron Pond created Sonic Sunsets to help grow an historic Philly neighborhood. (Photo by Jessica Brown)

Saturday afternoon, December 7, at the Discovery Center marked the inaugural performance of Sonic Sunsets, a new experimental music series over five Saturdays from December through February. Headliners The Blue Heron, a free jazz and avant-garde collective fronted by Sun Ra Arkestra member Mike Watsun, followed Sonic Sunsets creator Aaron Pond in an opening improvisational set.

Making bigger ponds

Pond, a Philadelphia transplant originally from the Florida swamplands and an occasional BSR contributor, currently acts as the public engagement representative for the Discovery Center. In this capacity, his responsibilities include anything from leading tours and facilitating bird walks and other nature activities to planning public events. After a few successful one-off concerts in the space, Pond decided to launch Sonic Sunsets as a more concentrated effort to showcase local performers, immerse attendees in more creative and collaborative processes and possibilities, and, perhaps most important, encourage more residents of the nearby Strawberry Mansion neighborhood to frequent and utilize the Discovery Center.

“I want this to be an extension of the neighborhood. I want kids to come and do their homework on our WiFi. I want them to make it feel like it’s a free cafe or like a library, but within this beautiful, natural spot,” Pond said.

Seeking adventures

The Discovery Center reopened late last year as a collaboration between the Philadelphia Outward Bound School and the National Audobon Society. As such, the center serves the two organizations’ respective missions: Outward Bound's, exposing youth and the greater public to adventure and the great outdoors; and the Audobon’s, ecological research and preservation. Home to a once hidden reservoir and an oasis for more than 170 species of migratory birds, the Discovery Center may seem like some remote destination in a small town or suburb. But look no further than North Philly, situated amdist East Fairmount Park and historic Strawberry Mansion.

Notably, the now majority African American neighborhood, once one of the wealthiest parts of the city, not too long ago, after decades of divestment, white flight, and urban decay, was labelled one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But what the headlines and statistics fail to capture is a culturally rich community that has birthed and nurtured numerous great artists including Jazmine Sullivan, Meek Mill, and John Coltrane, whose former house is now a national landmark within walking distance of the Discovery Center.

Accessible discovery

While distance is not an issue, Pond suggests that other obstacles could keep more area residents away. Unreliable and insufficient public transportation, costs, and a perception that the center and its programs are dog whistles for gentrification may keep some residents away. With these issues in mind, Pond has planned Sonic Sunsets to be as open and accessible as possible. Admissions are donation-based, and no one is denied for lack of funds. The space is also fully accommodating to people with disabilities, and the center is extending its hours on event dates.

To overcome some of the other cultural and social differences of attendees, Pond encourages folks to break bread together. There will literally be freshly baked bread, prepared by Pond, at each performance.

“I find that people are happier with a full stomach. I'm a big believer in intersensory engagement—the way taste affects smell affects sight affects sound,” he said. “One of the things I've found from my previous concerts is when there is bread, people talk to each other, people will hang around, people want to meet each other. They feel welcomed, they feel at home.”

Sharing is caring

With Sonic Sunsets, Pond is hoping to create a new model not only for the making and sharing of music but also for building community. In this model, jazz itself is a metaphor for how we show up in the world with our unique talents and gifts, meet others where they are, and create something fresh and distinct together. Accordingly, each event date is headlined by a different jazz and improvisational act (to date all are POC). While Pond acknowledges that the kind of music can be somewhat intimidating or uncomfortable for some listeners, the point is for attendees to connect with each other and with the space through the shared experience, a theory of change rooted from public space thinkers like Jane Jacobs and Afro-futurist literature, both inspirations for the series.

Five Sonic Sunsets events are currently on the books, and Pond is planning to extend the series and expand the other program offerings at the Discovery Center to include more music, more nature, and more opportunities for neighbors to convene and create.

What, Where, When:

Sonic Sunsets runs on select Saturdays, December 7, December 14, January 11, January 25, and February 8. All events are at the Discovery Center, 3401 Reservoir Dr., Philadelphia.

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