Posted August 25, 2018

Creating the Kensington Wish Gallery

We were only about an hour into the project when I found myself holding the corner of a 10x10 popup tent that was the leaky roof of our makeshift photo studio in a torrential downpour. We were set up on a vacant lot in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia asking people to share their aspirations for Kensington and then taking and printing their portraits to be immediately displayed as part of an outdoor gallery. The purpose of the project was twofold; highlight shared values among the people that call this neighborhood home and create something of beauty on this vacant lot that might begin to change perceptions about the potential of this small open space.

We had intentionally scheduled the gallery project to take place during the annual Rock The Block party, a 2-block-long street party on Kensington Ave under the EL hosted by Rock Ministries, the combination church and boxing gym that is an anchor institution in this neighborhood. We had about a dozen portraits printed, laminated, and mounted on the clothesline screwed to the wall of the Conrail viaduct that flanked one side of the vacant lot, before the non-stop drenching rain forced us to halt operations and threatened to shut us, and the whole block party, down completely. Not willing to accept defeat, the team, made up of professionals from the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Hinge Collective, Penn Praxis, Chris Baker Evens Photography, and the University of Pennsylvania, made a game-time decision to take the photography out in to the remaining crowd, still going strong under the shelter of the EL. A decision that ultimately made the project better by reaching more people.

By the end of the day the wall was filled with over 50 portraits of people and wishes nearly covering the face of the wall. The affect seemed to be immediate as people beginning to leave the block party paused for long stretches to look at the gallery. Many people were finding the images of themselves and others they knew, others just seemed to be captivated by the faces and messages. It was looking as if our perseverance was paying off. This was encouraging given that this project was only a small part of a much larger and more ambitious undertaking that began years earlier.

The gallery was the first step in realizing a design for a healing space as envisioned by graduate students in the Landscape Architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. It took two years of conversations and coordination to build the partnerships needed to set up a design studio course that could have the potential to do meaningful work in this neighborhood. New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), the earliest partner, is the conduit to the community and made the connection to Shift Capital, who owned the site at the intersection of Kensington Ave and Tusculum Street that ultimately became the focus of study for the students. Penn Praxis, was the next critical partner in lending their institutional knowledge in facilitating social impact projects with academic rigor.

The students were charged with a very difficult directive. Create a design for a place of radical inclusion, healing, and reconciliation in the context of a decades long opioid crisis that only seems to be getting worse. In this neighborhood there are deep divisions between the large and desperate drug addicted population and the embattled residents who have been living in a landscape of addiction for generations. We knew we were pushing on the limits of what design can do and, with eyes wide open, we started down the winding path of community engaged design.

The students visited anchor institutions, talked with residents, rode along with a homeless outreach team, attended, and presented at regular meetings of the local registered community organization (Somerset Neighbors for Better Living ), organized a lot cleanup day, and attended several public meetings that were held to debate the potential for supervised injection sites in Philadelphia. It was a condensed and intense engagement period, but the students began to understand the issues in a way that was immediate and personal, and this sensibility lent gravitas to their work. More importantly, people in the community knew who we were and were beginning to trust and support us.

By the end of the semester we had a plan for the 1/4 acre lot that greets you as you emerge from under the Conrail, or, Lehigh viaduct and enter this tight knit neighborhood of North Kensington. To those of us who had been through the full process it was easy to see the imprint of the community input, and it was also clear that there was still much work to be done to make this space “of” the community and not just for them.  Many of the ideas called for additional involvement and co-creation with the community, and these aspects were part of the answer to the persistent, nagging question, “how is this space a place of healing”. It became increasingly clear that the plan was really an armature for the project and not a fixed vision. It was a goal to be attained in increments and a testing of ideas. We needed small failures in order to get to the bigger gains and we needed small success to slowly shift entrenched mindsets about inclusive public space.  We are grateful to the support from the Knight Foundation, which allowed us to start testing these strategies for reimagining public space through trauma-informed engagement that will enable the extension of these lessons to additional contexts in Philadelphia and elsewhere. 

That is how we found ourselves standing in a downpour with a generator and high quality photo printer capturing beautiful images of people and celebrating shared aspirations. It was a small step toward the daunting goal of healing and inclusion. We do not know yet whether this small and temporary gallery installation will change how people approach the space, but we do know that most people there are eager to share their wishes for their home and that there is a great deal of common ground on which to build.