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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

The Heart Is Creativity: Village of Arts and Humanities, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

There is no more improbable figure in the greening and revitalization of a down-and-out African-American neighborhood than Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist. She thought so too, when she was first invited to create a park in an abandoned one-house lot next to the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center in 1986. The closest she had come to horticulture was putting cut flowers on the wall of an indoor garden “environment.”

“I was young and naïve and full of enthusiasm,” Yeh says.“I really didn’t think anyone would respond to my grant proposal.” Anxiety set in when she received a check from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The city had meanwhile torn down ten derelict buildings around the one-house lot.

“All of a sudden, I had this huge space, $2,500 to do something with it, and people were telling me it would be dangerous for an Asian woman. There was a lot of tension between Korean merchants and African American residents in the neighborhood. But a voice inside me said that if I didn’t rise to the occasion, the best of me would die.”

She rose with grace, determination, and eventually the support of the community, to every occasion and challenge in this 14-year odyssey from a park of “concrete trees” - sculptures created until soil was available to plant real trees - to the multi-faceted Village of Arts and Humanities today. The Village has its own building, construction crew, theater, literary and photography publications, after-school program, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, community gardens, tree farm, and job training program. Through its Grassroots Transformation Task Force, the Village has helped residents clear debris and restore 120 abandoned lots in a 260 block area in 1999 alone. “I never dreamed of the scope and complexity this would take on,” Yeh says, with genuine amazement.

She worked on building the park for the first four years only in the summers while she taught art at the University of the Arts. Lily made important connections and partnerships from the start. First was “JoeJoe” (Joseph Williams) ? a neighborhood jack-of-all-trades and artist at heart who became her assistant and protector. The first three summers the adults laughed at her - but she made friends with the community children, who delighted in the bright colors and shapes she created with them. Adults were won over by the children’s enthusiasm and Lily’s persistence and offer to train them in masonry, mosaics, painting, and construction techniques.

Another important ally was the Philadelphia Greens organization, which donated topsoil, plants and even benches to that first park and plants left over from the annual Flower Show every year after that. “Big Man” James Maxton is a 300-lb. man who in 1989 had a 20-year drug habit and was struggling with diabetes. He came to the park to learn how to make tile and participate in making a mosaic mural. Everyone admired his talent, and he swore that if Lily came back the next year, he’d be drug-free. When she returned, Big Man had kept his promise and has helped to work with drug addicts.

Co-founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities is Steven Sayre, who helped establish the Village as a non-profit organization in 1989. The following year, he got permission and a loan to renovate a three-story warehouse recently abandoned near the park. This became the Village headquarters building, making it possible to offer year-round programs and services.

With all its diverse activities, the core mission of the Village is community building through greening and land transformation. Produce from Village gardens is sold at three farmers’ markets. The two-acre tree farm with 75 permanent trees, 3,000 seedlings and 200 trees in buckets made $1,250 in its first year and is trying for a contract with the city park service. Next year, the Village will start building a Community Garden Center, which will offer workshops and job training, and sell topsoil, wood chips, and seedlings.

Incredibly, the tree farm, with all its portable seedlings, trees and irrigation equipment, has no fence protecting it. Yet there has been almost no vandalism, “because the residents are watching,” explains Yeh.

“When people see beauty, they cherish it. The heart of the Village is art. Art is creativity - in thinking, planning, strategizing, and implementation. We want to create a new urban village of beauty, where people have meaningful jobs, live in decent houses, grow their own food, and raise the next generation of greeners.”

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