Author Archives: Meredith

Germantown City Hall

Jeremy Beaudry, Katie Hargrave, and Meredith Warner collaborated with Jacob Wick to create Germantown City Hall for the 2013 Hidden City Festival in Philadelphia. The project temporarily opened the neglected Germantown Town Hall building as a space for civic engagement and debate, with a meeting/performance space, reading room/lending library, and office/copy center.

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In June of 2013, The Think Tank had the opportunity to work with artist Jacob Wick on a project called Germantown City Hall. Together we transformed a long-shuttered building known as Germantown Town Hall into a multipurpose public space offering a performance and meeting area, a reading room/lending library, an office/copy center, and workshop room. For six weeks, residents of Germantown had free access to City Hall and were invited to schedule meetings, performances, and events in the building. City Hall became, first and foremost, a civic space in which dialogues amongst and between the citizens of Germantown could occur.

The opening of the town hall building to the community produced a number of outcomes which are still being felt and addressed beyond the timespan of the project. We were able to catalyze new relationships between people and organizations working across Germantown which has led to ongoing initiatives to keep the building open to the public, to manage the archive of Germantown residents’ history we collected, and to create a living database of neighborhood resources. Germantown City Hall worked as a prototype of a different kind of civic space in the neighborhood that wasn’t currently provided for, a space that was secular, non-governmental, open, and networked.

The success of the space depended largely on the implementation of a clear, effective infrastructure which allowed for emergent uses, activities, and different levels of engagement. The use and life of the space grew slowly over time. The participatory structure was inclusive and accessible, and it was ad hoc, meaning that the space satisfied unmet, immediate needs within the community.

During the 24 days the project was open to the public, Germantown City Hall hosted over 50 different events which were attended by over 1800 visitors. Some of the Germantown organizations that used the space included:

  • Germantown Artists Roundtable
  • Kelly Green Project (Hansberry Community Garden)
  • Germantown United CDC
  • Decarcerate PA and Matthew Pillischer (Director, Broken On All Sides)
  • Ladies of the Knit
  • Center in the Park
  • Historic Germantown
  • Cliveden Historic Site
  • Wissahickon Dance Academy
  • Germantown High School Alumni Group
  • Time4Time Community Exchange

Nesting our Structures of Support project in Germantown City Hall

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Aside from co-designing the infrastructure of the space and community participation, one of our contributions to Germantown City Hall was to import our Structures of Support work into the space and customize it specifically for Germantown. Throughout the course of the project we collected data from the community, mapping past and current support networks and assets that might otherwise be invisible—things like informal civic groups, clubs, leisure groups, cooperatives, playgroups, town watches, community gardens, and so on.

We made our Structures of Support Survey available to all visitors, which allowed us to understand individual conceptions of support within Germantown. We also installed a large scale map of of the neighborhood and invited visitors to identify assets within Germantown. At the start of the GCH project we hosted a workshop to begin populating the map. Over the course of the 6 weeks the map itself acted as a generative and convivial tool for conversation among neighborhood folks. It often became a focal point where strangers gathered to chat about what they know and query each other for knowledge about Germantown. Everyone engaged in impromptu storytelling about what is, what has been, and what could be.

Through this process, we heard from the neighborhood how valuable the asset map could be as a living database of neighborhood resources, whether in a physical or digital format. We are in the process of digitizing the map and its data, and we hope to partner with other organizations to create a more sustained, growing, and widely available version of the asset map that began at Germantown City Hall.

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We interviewed several Germantown residents and asked them to tell us about why civic spaces like Germantown City Hall matter for the life of the community. One of these interviews was with Dennis Barnebey, a long-time Germantown resident involved in the Hansberry Garden and the Kelly Green Project. (Other interviews from the series are catalogued here.)

Additionally, we led flag making workshop with community members (kids included!) to create flags and symbols for Germantown, allowing folks to show their true colors, presenting issues and desires for Germantown through symbols rather than words.

Related Notes

Press for Germantown City Hall

Germantown City Hall was commissioned by Hidden City Philadelphia for the 2013 Hidden City Festival with the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

A Tool for Conversation

We extend our warmest thanks to the small group of Germantown residents who willingly joined us in an experimental conversation using our project In a state far from equilibrium as a conversational tool. We learned so much from each distinct voice and have yet to really think about how we’d like to reflect the conversation back to the world.

The highlight for me personally was experiencing an intergenerational conversation like this—open, honest, and challenging. I am thinking more about how we might bring generations together so we can all learn from the vast knowledge of those who have lived here for a lifetime.

~Meredith

Photos courtesy of Vrouyr Joubanian

Opening Space for Participation

Support can be indirect. It doesn’t necessarily come from giving, but from opening up. It’s the difference between giving advice and listening. When we advise, we colonize. When we listen, we are simply with others. We allow them the space to process on their own or as a group, in a way that makes sense to them. It creates a space—an opening for agency, for engagement, for authenticity.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago while interviewing a good friend as part of our Structures of Support project (SoS). He is willing to engage very fully in conversation as long as the environment supports and welcomes it—as long as the space is open. In many ways, I think most people are eager for space to participate—if only we might learn how to make room for them.

This weekend, Jeremy and I are hosting a conversation at Flying Kite where we hope to create space for a frank conversation about our neighborhood of Germantown. We’ll be using our project In a state far from equilibrium as a grounding object for the dialogue—asking participants to use the model of urban succession as a lens for thinking about our neighborhood. We’d like to explore how Germantown has changed over time and identify forces and assets in our community so we might better understand what is really at stake as this place shifts and transforms.

We may speculate about what might come of the relationships that form through this work, or the projects it might spin off. But we really can’t know what, if anything, will come of it. We can only open the space and invite others in to share what they know.

~Meredith

Personal Structures of Support: Pt. 2

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My friend Chaplain Jeff and I have talked a lot about the Think Tank’s Structures of Support project. He works at a social services agency in Philly called The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. They provide support to those who, in many cases, have non-existent or weak networks. The support they offers varies but is often in the form of housing, food, spiritual support, or friendship.

For Chaplain Jeff and I, discussions of support often lead back to the physical environment. What is it about our landscape that has contributed to weak support structures? Or is it nostalgia that tricks us into believing that there was ever a time when kids were safely “free-ranged,” or when people asked their neighbors for a cup of flour, or when we knew just who to call when our car needed a jump.

I have long been convinced that the built world is at least one contributor to our ailing civil society. We traverse the landscape trapped safely in the bubble of our cars, only to be left vulnerable on the side of the highway when our tire goes flat. We search our cell phone for a person to call. But more likely, we remedy the anemic nature of our contact list by enrolling in (and paying for) a roadside assistance service—one of many “services” designed to do what our families, friends and neighbors used to do: help us in times of need.

I interviewed Chaplain Jeff a few weeks ago, and he shared some great insights into how the built environment has drastically affected the way he engages his neighbors. He draws out the differences between the town and the planned community by sharing stories about growing up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and then moving to a planned community as an adult. Have a listen! (3 minutes)

~Meredith