Walking down the street past the boutique stores and quaint cafés, it’s hard to believe that Old City used to be a desert of abandoned warehouses and lost mercantile business. But as the city was knocking down buildings and preparing to use the real estate for highways, artists took advantage of the cheaper rents and space in the area to begin a cultural renaissance and start revitalizing the neighborhood.
To study how these artists affected their environment, Philadelphia Dance Projects (PDP) researched the impact on Old City from 1975 to 1980 in its Old City Arts History Project. On February 23, it will be hosting a free symposium to discuss the results of its research, along with a panel discussion of groundbreaking Philadelphia artists who participated in and bore witness to Old City’s evolution.
“The Old City Arts History Project has been established to investigate the arts in relationship to place and to consider how the work of the artists of the time sparked a physical, social, and cultural transformation that engendered the reinvention of Old City — a neighborhood that continues to evolve today,” says Terry Fox, executive director of Philadelphia Dance Projects. “Old City’s legacy was forged by visual artists, dancers, musicians, performance artists, sculptors, potters, poets, writers, photographers, filmmakers, storytellers, cartoonists, and makers/inventors. This symposium allows attendees to learn about this unique era from those who were there and share in the conversation.” The artists taking part of the panel include Barbara Dufty, former member of the Wilma Theater and executive director of the renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company; Charles Guarino, publisher of Artforum magazine; and more.
The neighborhood still remains a bastion of cultural celebration, with multiple galleries on every block, year-round performances at the Arden Theatre Company providing, and several spaces like Christ Church Neighborhood House and the Painted Bride providing spaces for artists to explore and present their work. But exploring the past to see how the arts became entrenched in the area can provide useful information for how cities can continue to collaborate with artists and work with them as catalysts for change.
At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is under constant threat of being slashed or defunded altogether, projects like the Old City Arts History Project become all the more necessary. Even at a micro level, impact studies such as this one can help solidify the place of the arts as a stimulus for industry and the country’s growth.
However, the grim reality is that many former havens for artists including Old City have now become so hip that the artists who once turned the city on to their wealth of opportunities are priced out. Is gentrification the price of artistic exploration within a neighborhood? And what are the responsibilities of artists and city reformers when they set their sights on lower-priced and forgotten pockets of the city? If these issues resonate with you, attend the symposium and ready yourself for a fruitful discussion.
PDP's Old City Arts Project Symposium takes place Saturday, February 23, at 2pm at WHYY’s Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons (150 North 6th Street). The symposium is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Visit http://philadanceprojects.org/ for details and to register.