At the intersection of Lancaster Avenue and 42nd Street in West Philadelphia, a formerly vacant corner lot now features a picnic table and colorful message board where residents can post information about upcoming events, services, and other useful resources for the community. The table and board were designed and built by volunteers through a partnership of the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) and Public Workshop.
PEC is a human services and community development organization focused on the neighborhoods of Mantua, Mill Creek, Belmont, Saunders Park and Powelton Village. Public Workshop is a design firm that engages youth in building projects to improve and enliven their communities, often encouraging them to do the designing themselves.
The idea to build a message board was developed by volunteers from PEC’s Community Connectors program, a group of mostly youth volunteers that help disseminate information to the rest of the community through door-to-door engagement. Public Workshop guided the volunteers through a series of meetings at the Department of Making + Doing, which is a shared maker space for youth-focused organizations.
“We didn’t want to do a standard message board,” said Cassandra Green, manager of community outreach and partnerships at PEC. “You have these message boards that go up in communities that are pretty basic. We wanted something that would attract people almost like a piece of community art.”
After producing a number of variations of the design, the volunteers voted on the version they liked the best. The final design employs an eye-catching shape and a large overhang to keep out rain and wind.
The message board was just one of a number ideas generated by the volunteers, but it emerged as a simple design solution to one of the biggest problem they face as Community Connectors.
“I think its very clear in the neighborhood that these guys are working in — and most of the communities we work in– that communication is a real challenge,” said the Director of Public Workshop Alex Gilliam.
Low-income neighborhoods such as Belmont still sit on the other side of the digital divide, according to research from Pew Charitable Trusts. Many residents depend on in-person engagement for information about their community.
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“It’s also so bifurcated,” he added. “I could get in touch with Mayor Nutter pretty quickly, but in terms of communicating with a broad audience of community members it’s really hard.”
The goal is to eventually have a message board in each of the five neighborhoods served by PEC.
“Our goal would be to start in spring, now that we have the prototype,” Green said.
More Projects on Lancaster Ave.
The site at 42nd and Lancaster Ave. was identified in the “Make Your Mark” neighborhood planning process, led by PEC and Interface Studio, as a key location for a “pocket park” that could eventually form a line of green spaces along the corridor.
The plan states: “The small triangular slack spaces that result from Lancaster Avenue diagonally cutting across the surrounding street grid present an opportunity to establish a number of small, greened pocket parks.”
Referring to the lot specifically, the plan added that “this lot’s size allows for a number of additional programmatic uses and creates the opportunity to accommodate a variety of users.”
Green said that the lot, at least in the warmer months, was already being used as a communal space for cookouts and other recreational activities.
But this section of the corridor around 42nd and Lancaster Ave has yet to fully benefit from the revitalization that has happened further southeast on the avenue, toward University City and Center City. There are still a number of empty storefronts and vacant lots that break up the commercial density of the corridor.
“The team had really recognized that this part of Lancaster Avenue feels really under-loved,” Gilliam said.
This became increasingly clear, he added, during the construction phase, as business owners from the community approached him and the volunteers about potentially building something for them as well. They wanted signs, picnic tables, dividing walls and other simple constructions to improve either their business or the streets and parks that surround them.
“The trick now — and what PEC and Public Workship are trying to figure out — is how do we get the funding and the time and support to really run with the opportunities that arose,” Gilliam said.
Photos via People’s Emergency Center-30-
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