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Bridging Philadelphia Neighborhoods by Sharing Gifts and Stories
If a Philadelphia neighborhood could send a gift box to another neighborhood, filled with all of the things that make its community unique, what would go in the box? This was the question that two neighborhood organizations, Bartram’s Garden and Mt. Airy USA, set to find out through the first iteration of the Neighborhood Exchange Boxes Innovation Fund project happening in Philadelphia this fall.
The project began as a modern-day interpretation of the legendary Bartram’s Boxes, which were sent by Philadelphian John Bartram (1699-1777), American’s first botanist, to clients far and wide. The simple wooden boxes were filled with seeds, dried plants, and other natural specimens, designed to incite a sense of discovery in its recipients. The boxes brought new varieties of flowers and trees to Europe, which were reflected in its gardens then and today. Bartram’s estate is now Bartram’s Garden, located in Southwest Philadelphia.
Bartram’s Garden and Mt. Airy USA are both partners engaged in Reimagining the Civic Commons, which aims to link civic assets across the city to share ideas and enhance resources. Bartram’s Garden is the terminus of Bartram’s Mile, the mile-long bike and pedestrian trail that will connect Southwest Philadelphia with Center City, and ultimately the Schuylkill River Trail. The Lovett Library and Park project brings together the Free Library of Philadelphia and Mt. Airy USA, the local community nonprofit in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood, to solidify the library and its adjacent park as a community hub and gathering space, and provide fertile testing ground for the concept of a library without walls. The other projects in the Civic Commons include the Viaduct Rail Park in Center City, Centennial Commons in West Philadelphia, and Discovery Center in North Philadelphia. The sites represent diverse communities across the city, many of whom know little about each other, and rarely visit.
The Neighborhood Exchange Box project sought to change that, by collecting stories and treasures about each neighborhood, and sharing them with another site. Bartram’s Garden and Lovett Library and Park were the first sites to exchange. Mt. Airy USA kicked off the engagement, asking residents to share thoughts about what made the neighborhood unique. The team posted up at the outdoor dining nights “Supper Sessions” in the neighborhood, and repurposed a parklet (designed by MGA Architects for the AIA Convention this spring) as the venue for collection. The installation was meant both to draw attention and to invite visitors to share and linger. The outfit also featured a videographer who recorded residents’ stories, as others wrote their thoughts on notecards which were then on display. After a few weeks, much input was collected, the box was filled, and was readied to send to the next site.
Filled with the contents of Mt. Airy, the box traveled to Bartram’s Garden, where it was unpacked at the site’s annual Harvest Fest. At this event, the box both shared the stories of Mt. Airy, as the gifts and notecards were displayed for all to view, and shifted to collecting stories from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Several Southwest residents had been invited to Mt. Airy for the last of their Supper Sessions and then served as ambassadors for the box at its new location. A number of of these residents noted that they had never been to Mt. Airy and greatly enjoyed their visit and learning about its culture and history. Similarly, many Mt. Airy residents made the trip to Bartram’s Garden for the festival, bringing diverse Philadelphians together to interact and learn and gain greater appreciation for the city’s wealth of cultural assets.
What’s next for the box? The next destination will be the Viaduct Rail Park, located in a diverse cross-section of Philadelphia where increased development abuts historically Chinese neighborhoods. The contents of the next exchange, working with Friends of the Rail Park, may include a representation of these diverse culture or perhaps samples of the site’s industrial legacy. As the project progresses, the Free Library of Philadelphia, another local partner in the Civic Commons, will work to archive and store the material for future sharing.