Last week, in a backroom of the Chester City Offices, a small group of residents nibbled donuts from the famed Phatsos Bakery and sipped coffee as volunteers interviewed them about how they engage with arts and culture in the community.
Many of the interviewees are long-time residents of Chester (located 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia along the Delaware River) and their memories go back decades to a time when the city was a very different place. Major industrial firms such as the Scott Paper Company employed thousands, and movie theaters and music venues dotted the streets.
Today the city of 34,000 is plagued by vacancy, crime and unemployment. Adding to its notoriety, Chester was recently ranked the second most dangerous city in the country by the research group Neighborhood Scout.
There have been a number of attempts to reverse this decline. Among them are a number of large-scale development projects, including a soccer stadium, a casino and a riverside office park, that have been touted as game changers. But none of these projects, which cling to the waterfront rather than the city’s residential interior, have succeeded so far in fundamentally altering the cycle of violence and poverty that has left Chester’s neighborhoods physically scarred and its people devastated.
The interviews are a part of a modest, cross-sector initiative, called Chester Made, designed to improve the city by developing its arts and culture sector. The effort is targeting a mile-long corridor in the heart of the city to be developed as an arts district.
The partnership of city planners, anchor institutions and nonprofit organizations behind Chester Made are conducting interviews and “story sharing sessions” around the city through the end of February to gain a better understanding of what the sector looks like so they can better attract investment.
Implicit in this process is the idea that Chester already has a robust arts and culture sector. The difficulty, according to organizers, is in how to find it and engage the people who have kept it alive.
A community of artists
Van Buren N. Payne, 75, is one of the first to be interviewed at last week’s story sharing event. Many in Chester already know his story: He is a prolific local artist and passionate advocate for art education who currently teaches art classes to senior citizens around Delaware County.
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Payne moved with his family to Chester from Georgia in the early 1940s. He spent most of his life working factory jobs throughout the region, but always returned to art. During his time in the military, he would churn out portraits of family members for fellow soldiers or paint signs for use around the barracks in Mannheim, Germany.
He has also been a witness to how arts and culture in Chester has changed over the years and to what he sees as a decline in community among artists.
“We had a thing where we got together — the artists — and we socialized,” Payne said. “That’s practically nonexistent today. You don’t know who’s who in art.”
The local arts and culture sector took a blow, he added, when its central meeting place, the Deshong Art Museum, was shut down by the county in the 1980s for renovations. It never reopened.
“That was a place where we could come and work and paint all night long,” Payne said. “We stored our work there. We had exhibits, and it was significant because for most exhibits you have to go before a board and a lot of times you get weeded out — you didn’t make the cut — so here we had a place where we could show our work to the community and it was appreciated.”
The large stone building, located in Deshong Park on the north end of the city just below Interstate 95, is boarded up and in disrepair, but still standing.
Without the museum, the arts and culture sector lost a central hub, but a new generation of artists has found a home on the Avenue of the States, a narrow corridor that runs through the heart of the city’s civic and business district.
The corridor runs south from Deshong Park, passes under the SEPTA regional rail line, and terminates at the Chester City Offices. Along its diagonal route, there are beauty supply shops, discount clothing stores, walk-up windows that sell coffee, water ice and cigarettes and a heap of vacant buildings and lots. The upper stories are almost all vacant and run down.
The Artist Warehouse, located nearby the Avenue of the States, is a kind of modern variation on the Deshong Art Museum. Founded by Chester native Devon Walls, the space is less institutional, yet it serves a similar role. It provides studio space, where multiple disciplines of artists can work, as well gallery and exhibit space. Some of the artists live there full-time.
Walls also owns six properties on the Avenue and plans to turn at least one of them into a cafe with a dance studio on the second floor and artist lofts on the third floor. “I think ownership by the artists will be key downtown,” he said.
There is also Chester Arts Alive, a nonprofit focused on growing arts in the city, and Art on the Avenue of the States, a cooperatively-owned visual art gallery. In addition, local businesses have contributed to the arts scene, such as Open Mike’s Internet Cafe, which holds poetry readings and stand-up comedy events.
The Chester Made initiative is trying to bring these organizations together while building support for the arts inside and outside the city.
In the past, organizations such as Chester Arts Alive! and the Artist Warehouse operated independently, said Latifah Griffin, an assistant city planner working on the Chester Made initiative. “This initiative brings gives them the opportunity to bring their projects and their events together. It really puts them on the map.”
In fact, getting these organizations on the map — literally — is one of the key reasons for launching the Chester Made initiative.
The power of a map
In 2012, Chester adopted a comprehensive plan called Vision 2020, which “like many comprehensive plans, talked about arts and culture as being one of the impetuses for change and rejuvenation in the community,” said Paul Fritz, consultant for the Chester Planning Department.
City Council passed a resolution around the same time to create the “Historic Chester Arts and Cultural District,” encompassing Deshong Park and the Avenue of the States corridor. The designation set the stage for greater government involvement in the city’s arts and culture. However, the lack of data on who was actually making art in Chester would prove a barrier to attracting investment.
Fritz explained how the city applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to bolster arts and cultural planning in the district, but was rejected in part due to the city’s lack of what’s called a cultural asset map.
“We realized we were a little ahead of ourselves,” he added. “We needed to actually take a step back and get more data.”
A cultural asset map is essentially a comprehensive map of the city’s arts and culture sector, from concert halls and galleries to public spaces with a history of hosting cultural programming. A regional example would be CultureBlocks, an interactive cultural asset map for Philadelphia County.
The map will help the city access grants from outside organizations, Fritz said, like the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as other sources of foundation dollars and investment.
The interview events, which will take place at well-known venues and spaces for arts and culture around the city, are designed to crowd-source the specific locations, individuals and activities related to arts and culture in Chester
“We need to hear from you the ways in which you are creative in your lives, from things that you make in your home, to choirs that you participate in through your church, to the food that you create,” said Don Newton, founding member of Chester Arts Alive! and active partner in the Chester Made initiative, as he addressed interviewees. “All of that is ours. All of that has some kind of value.”
What makes it Chester Made?
The name of the Chester Made initiative reflects a desire on the part of the organizers to make sure Chester residents feel they have a stake in the process, and to impress upon them that the interview sessions will lead to tangible results for the community.
“Chester has sort of been used as a testing ground because there’s so many complex issues here,” said Lisa Jo Epstein, executive director of Gas & Electric Arts, who designed the interview and storytelling process.
“The [Environmental Protection Agency] comes in and says ‘we’re going to do a study,’ and nothing comes of it, then somebody else comes in and says ‘we’re going to do a study,’ and there’s nothing given back to the people. They’re sort of study-fatigued, if you will,” she said.
This is why, Epstein explained, the interview and storytelling process mixes survey questions with opportunities for storytelling and sharing. A crew of Chester-based actors even act out some of the stories in improvised performances in effort to give back to the people who come out to the events.
But will it enough to convince long-time residents that the initiative is in fact “Chester Made?”
Walls, whose Artist Warehouse exemplifies recent grassroots efforts to build the arts community in Chester, said he is both hopeful and skeptical.
“On paper it’s great. It looks good, and I hope it totally works and I’m supportive of it, but at the same time I’m watching it as it grows,” Walls said. “We’ve seen many movements like this come into the city and they have a lot of promises.”
“I think that Chester’s artists are moving forward and trying to get a lot of things done that politics couldn’t get done over the years, and I just hope that a lot more Chester artists are brought to the forefront and that their faces are visible,” he added. “Either way, I’m here for a lifetime.”-30-
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