By Jared Whalen
When looking through the stacks of old photographs she’s gathered, Kalia Brooks sees the diversity that represents various snapshots of a community’s history.
“We have images that go back to the turn of the 20th century,” says Brooks, the art curator for the Philly Block Project.
The subject of those photos is South Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood that experienced rapid urban decay in the wake of deindustrialization and is now beginning to feel the modern effects of gentrification.
Brooks, along with the Philadelphia Photo Art Center (PPAC) and conceptual photographer Hank Willis Thomas, launched the Philly Block Project, a yearlong, socially engaged collaboration aimed at creating a visual archive of the neighborhood.
Rather than just creating an archive of the past, however, the intent of the project is to create a narrative of South Kensington’s ongoing flux through photographs that celebrate and preserve the community’s heritage.
The project, which began in October, is made up of three efforts. First, PPAC is collecting photographs from members of the community. Second, archived images from libraries and City Hall are being located and curated. And lastly, Thomas and his group of photographers will be coming into the community to capture modern imagery of the neighborhood.
“With a project like this, it’s so dependent on the situation and will be molded and determined by the people and the place at which it is happening,” says Brooks. “We have to open ourselves to different perspectives and that’s what we are working to accomplish.”
The project’s concept came from Brooks’ thesis while studying for her M.A. in curatorial practice. Brooks works in New York but was born in Philadelphia and was inspired by the changes she saw in her grandmother’s neighborhood, Strawberry Mansion.
“Watching how that neighborhood changed over the course of my lifetime really inspired me to think about how as curator with this new set of skills that I was developing, how I could engage in that space from the position of the public and the urban ecology,” says Brooks.
PPAC, which is located in South Kensington, was founded in 2009. Its founder and executive director, Sarah Stolfa, believes that the organization has an obligation to help preserve the heritage of the community.
“A lot of times artists come into a neighborhood because they are seeking affordable rent and space, then the neighborhood starts to get hip and cool,” says Stolfa. “PPAC is inherently a part of that change just by being an art organization.”
Gentrification is a trend in urban neighborhoods where new development comes into a community, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses. Often, the long-time residents are forced out and forgotten, along with the area’s heritage and history.
“The future of this neighborhood is up for grabs.”
“I think it’s really important to record this history and the current snapshot of what this neighborhood is in order to really talk about what is happening here,” says Stolfa. “So that when a business closes because a developer bought the building and is going to demolish it for luxury homes, there is a written document of the owner who was pushed out of there. It’s really important to put a face to this neighborhood that has a long history.”
Like many industrial urban areas, Kensington was hit hard when factories began shutting down in the mid-20th century. While the jobs they provided left the neighborhood, the physical buildings remained and created a dichotomy of commercial and residential properties.
“In the neighborhood itself,” says Stolfa, “There are factories butted up against residences. So you have pockets of either abandoned building or lots of buildings that have been torn down, and the next street over will be the typical Philadelphia street of packed row homes.”
Philadelphia has seen a wave of development pushing from its center. South Kensington is vulnerable to the rapid development experienced in neighboring communities like Fishtown.
“This neighborhood’s use and the future of this neighborhood is really up for grabs.”
Another goal of the Philly Block Project is to help build relationships between the PPAC and its surrounding community. Stolfa realized that up until this project, everyone coming to the center was coming from outside the neighborhood.
“The reason they [the local community] weren’t coming was because we hadn’t gone out and made those relationships and invited people in,“ says Stolfa. “It’s really important to us as an organization to be a part of that and to break those barriers.”
The end result of the Philly Block Project will be an exhibit launch on Sept. 8, featuring the photographs Thomas and his team produce. Along the way, however, the center is hosting exhibits and offering programming to connect the community with the project.
On March 10, PPAC opened an exhibition of the photographers’ previous work in order to introduce the community to the artists. On June 9, the center will launch the archive exhibition, curated by Brooks, which will include both the community submissions and archived historic imagery.
In April, PPAC will launch free art programming for the local community.
“It’s just been fun creating this project with their interest in the forefront,” says Lori Waselchuk, coordinator of the project.
For Waselchuk, one of the most rewarding parts of the project is getting to experience the process right alongside the residents.
“We are developing an art project day to day with people who do not have an art background,” says Waselchuk. “It is a very deep creative and listening process that is a privilege to be a part of.”
For photographer Hank Willis Thomas, who was born in Philadelphia, the project is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
“We’re grateful that they are allowing us into their spaces to document something so intimate as themselves and their homes, the spaces where they have created and hopefully will continue to create a lifetime of memories,” says Thomas. “We’re handling vulnerable stories and it is important that we do them justice as we provide a platform for these stories.”
While the future of the community is uncertain, because of that platform, its past can be preserved.
“We’re trying to preserve the history of the community through photographs in the hopes that these people—unlike the infrastructure—will never be erased.”