In the summer of 2013, The Think Tank that has yet to be named collaborated with artist Jacob Wick to transform a long-closed building known as Germantown Town Hall into a multipurpose public space we called Germantown City Hall. As a part of our ongoing project Structures of Support, we asked neighborhood residents to reflect on the meaning of civic space for the community. Below are the video recordings of a select number of those interviews.
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.
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
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.
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.
- We hosted flag making workshops so that Germantowners could create flags for the neighborhood.
- We hosted a community workshop to generate data for the Germantown Community Assets Map.
- We worked with Germantown artist and activist YahNe Baker to host a conversation on learning and education
- Cleaning up for Germantown City Hall to get the space ready
Press for Germantown City Hall
- “Germantown: Town Hall Open for Discussion”, PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com
- “Germantown’s ‘City Hall’ is officially closed to visitors but for how long?”, NewsWorks.org
- “Germantown Artists Roundtable brainstorms Hidden City participation ideas”, NewsWorks.org
- “Germantown’s ‘City Hall’ is officially open to visitors”, NewsWorks.org
- “Changing Skyline: Germantown’s classic, vacant landmarks”, Philadelphia Inquirer
- “Inside Hidden City Philadelphia”, WHYY Radio Times
- “Hidden City Festival 2013 — A spirited new Germantown Town Hall”, ArtBlog.org
The Think Tank will be facilitating a series of workshops and conversations as a part of Germantown City Hall, and the first of these will be held on Sunday, May 26, 1-3pm in the workshop room at the Town Hall. We are presenting aspects of Structures of Support in GCH and the goal of Sunday’s workshop will be to begin a large-scale physical map of the many wonderful assets and resources that are available in Germantown. Such resources might be community gardens, homegrown schools, artisans, informal co-ops, and on and on. The map will also help us to visualize where we might be lacking resources so that we can collectively fill these needs. We’ve invite a number of community members with deep experience in the neighborhood who we believe will have important knowledge to contribute as we launch the mapping project. The community asset map will be on display for the duration of Germantown City Hall, and we will be inviting all visitors to add to the map throughout.
Update: We had a great turnout for the workshop, and we generated a lot of data for the map. Stay tuned for more…
Preparations are well underway at the Germantown Town Hall for the opening of Germantown City Hall, our collaboration with Jacob Wick and Information Department which is part of the 2013 Hidden City Festival. Last week, we had help from some amazing volunteers and Hidden City staff to begin cleaning the space and moving in donated furniture. As we begin to inhabit the space, the power and possibility suggested by the building becomes more and more clear.
From May 23 – June 30, the Germantown Town Hall building will reopen as Germantown City Hall, a multipurpose public space offering a performance and meeting area, a reading room/lending library, an office/copy center, and workshop room. Residents of Germantown will have free access to City Hall and are invited to schedule meetings, performances, and events in the building. It is our hope that the City Hall become, first and foremost, a civic space in which dialogues amongst and between the citizens of Germantown may occur. To get involved, find out more, or share leads, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 575-446-3676.
When I move through Philadelphia, much of what I observe and experience is filtered through the ideas expounded by the philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich. The connecting thread throughout his work is rather straightforward: Our industrial-scaled institutions and tools have overpowered us to such a totalizing degree that we are no longer able to disentangle ourselves from their colonizing effects. That is, schools and universities, governments and public agencies, and corporations of all kinds have greatly diminished our individual and collective capacity to provide for ourselves and each other.
Another way to understand Illich is to describe a spectrum of connectedness to ourselves, each other, and the world. At one end of this spectrum is a set of relationships with the world that is convivial—amicable, human-scaled, life-supporting, present. At the other end is the impersonal and alienating mechanism of industrialization that amounts to a profound dehumanization. In Philadelphia, I see ample evidence of lives being lived at either end of this spectrum and at many points in between. On the side of conviviality are cooperative preschools, neighborhood food coops, time banks, and community gardens, while on the side of industrialization are coroporatized charter schools, welfare offices, fast “food” chain restaurants, and acres of vacant, fallow land cordoned off by the city. Illich invites us to combat the alienating forces of industrialization by reclaiming our capacity to support each other through meaningful interchange, to rely less on the dominant institutions of contemporary society, and to lean more on each other.
This is a tall order to fill. His challenge is impossibly audacious. I suspect that, for many of us, we have never thought very deliberately about the kinds of support structures we do have or might need to live more fully with our communities.
In the Think Tank that has yet to be named, one of our primary research interests is in exploring the structures of support that people create and maintain in order to live a life. By asking people about their support structures, we hope to learn how to build more resilient and robust support structures in the future. In part, I see this work as answering Illich’s call. His oeuvre charts a trajectory away from industrial institutions and values toward the deschooling (de-institutionalization) of society, the creation of tools that support conviviality, and the reclaiming of values grounded in more communal ways of life. The trajectory of our research on the structures of support aligns precisely with these goals.
At a basic level, examining the structures of support begins with this question: How is it that some get by so well, while others barely get by, or not at all? There is a political debate regarding this question that is rehearsed ad infinitum. Those on the left will push for more government social services and assistance (the state controlled social safety net), which necessitates the increasing institutionalization and bureaucratization of most aspects of life in the name of efficiency. On the right lies the counterargument that less government oversight and the selling off of public entities, services, and infrastructure to the private sector will somehow generate a just society (this coupled with the moralizing myth of bootstrapping and personal responsibility). It should be noted that whether public or private in nature, the sheer scale of the resulting public agencies, non-profit organizations, or multinational corporations is such that they all further the industrialization of daily life. This is a gross oversimplification, which should not be taken as flippant, because politics have very palpable consequences at the level of the neighborhood and the individual. But, in returning to the question posed at the outset of this paragraph, I believe that our attention and energy must be focused on understanding how individual citizens can live communally in our streets and blocks.
With my partner (Think Tank collaborator, Meredith Warner) and two children, I live in a neighborhood called Germantown, which happens to be one of the oldest settlements in Philadelphia. Today, quaintly restored colonial buildings—George Washington’s summer home is here, Thomas Jefferson slept over there, the first abolitionists met just around the corner—are interspersed throughout a large and diverse urban district that runs the gamut in terms of racial, economic, and class constituencies. There is an omnipresent yet guarded historical quality to the neighborhood, locked away with few exceptions behind placards recounting the long past events that impart to it the official textbook history. Like most of Philadelphia, Germantown is “block to block”, which is a way we talk about the unevenness of the city with respect to degrees of safety, disinvestment, and abandonment as they materialize, often drastically, from one block to the next.
We’ve lived here for nearly three years, and there is still so much we do not know about this place. We do not know the extent of its outer edges, its urban nooks, its quiet side streets, its vacant lots and abandoned buildings. We do, however, know our block, and those blocks surrounding ours. We know the various paths we routinely walk during the course of our regular and rhythmic movements within the neighborhood. These include: to and from the train station, to and from the library, to and from the drugstore, to and from the park, to and from the community garden. We walk often in the evenings with our kids, in a final push to drain their endless energy. We walk “the loop”, as it is known to us, and we anticipate the things that we’ll meet along the way—the houses of people we know, the long wall the kids walk on, the empty parking lot they run screaming circles in, the front porch with the old, tired cats, the cactus in the sidewalk where more than once they’ve caught stickers in their tiny fingers. Some evenings, our loop is detoured by a stroll along the “secret alley”, so called because it is an overgrown, infrequently travelled street that runs along the backside of large urban residential lots filled with formative old houses topped by rusty weathervanes and patchworks of slate and asphalt roofs.
Less frequently, we venture further outside of this radius—a range established by the maximum capacity of little legs with limited patience—to explore unfamiliar territory, much of it dotted by the string of colonial-era historic sites and houses that partly give Germantown its distinct character: Wyck, Grumblethorpe, Germantown Friends, Johnson House and others. But this is a living city, and so along the way we find the spaces that give a place texture: commercial corridors, neat brick rowhouses, grand stone twins, churches of all denominations and sizes, ancient graveyards, well-used and disused parks, faded storefronts, crumbling warehouses, vacant lots. This is a living neighborhood, a working neighborhood, a struggling neighborhood filled with people doing all of the things that people do: waiting for buses, waving hellos to friends and neighbors, buying lottery tickets and newspapers at the kiosks, smoking, idling on corners, visiting libraries, worshipping in churches, sleeping on park benches, hustling passersby, waiting in lines, drinking coffee, yelling and laughing, getting by and not getting by.
So, how is that some get by so well, while others barely get by, or not at all?
The leaders and policymakers of cities will commission and then point to countless metrics in order to understand the relative health of a city, of a neighborhood, of a block: median home price and median income, percentages of the population on public assistance or incarcerated, statistics on who has or has not completed various levels of schooling, number of abandoned properties or parks per capita, number of reported incidents of violence or abuse. In referring to these metrics on a daily basis, we have given them control over the narrative we construct about our city, and that narrative is frequently one of violence, poverty, and trauma. It is the narrative of all the things we lack and all the ways we are broken. This quantitative data is useful, perhaps, in the way that symptoms can help a patient begin a conversation with her doctor about what ails her. In cities, with more sophisticated data and analysis, the symptoms may be interpreted in such a way that the stories they tell are nuanced and insightful. Yet, symptoms, as indicators of root causes, are often dislocated in time and space from their causal origins (as if any such moments could be identified at all). Symptoms, in the form of charts and graphs or even dynamic data visualizations, need to be contextualized with the stories told by those who live in between the data points, who live in the streets and on the blocks in relation to those next to them who tell stories as well.
I believe that we must daylight the underlying structures of support in our communities and build bridges within these structures where the connections are failing or absent. For a city like Philadelphia and a neighborhood like Germantown, this means mapping, person by person and block by block, the individual networks of support along with the resources that exist within these networks. It requires identifying those who are resource-rich and creating links between them and those who are resource-poor, in effect creating a commons of generosity and exchange.
My partner and I are keenly aware of our reliance on those around us for support, and that we and our children would not have the life we live—and might not get by—without their generosity. Reciprocally, we try to be deliberate in how we support others, and how we model that for our kids. The way in which we build and sustain a network of support among our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens radiates outward, emanating from the daily choices we make in our lives. Increasingly, I am striving to design an intentional life for myself and my family, one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of our every action with the world and that countermands the false apart-ness we are made to feel toward ourselves, each other, and our environment. The multitude of answers to the question of how we get by is of common interest to all of us. In sharing our individual support structures we take the first step toward building from the ground up a communal network of resources which leverages peer to peer, family to family, and neighborhood to neighborhood connections.
We’ll be developing a more locally-grown response to structures of support this summer as part of Germantown City Hall, a collaboration with Jacob Wick and Information Department for the 2013 Hidden City Festival.
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.
Photos courtesy of Vrouyr Joubanian
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.
In a state far from equilibrium adapts the ecological model of forest succession in order to explore the ways in which cities change over time through a cyclical process of growth, stagnation, disaster, abandonment and revitalization. This project was created by Katie Hargrave, Meredith Warner, and Jeremy Beaudry for the exhibition "The Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau” at SPACES in May 2012. It was also exhibited at “Philly Works: Qualities of Life” at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in late 2012.
In a state far from equilibrium adapts the ecological model of forest succession in order to explore the ways in which cities change over time through a cyclical process of growth, stagnation, disaster, abandonment and revitalization. Visitors to the project are invited to play with a physical manifestation of the urban succession model and consider their own city and neighborhoods in light of this analytical framework.
The Think Tank that has yet to be named created this project for inclusion in a group exhibition called “The Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau” at SPACES in Cleveland. The project was then presented at the Philadelphia Art Alliance as part of the exhibition Philly Works: Qualities of Life in Philadelphia.
As organisms and networks, cities live and breath, ebb and flow, change according to the myriad complex currents that are social, environmental, political, economic, historical, cultural, psychic, and so on. Buildings fall down, vacant lots become overgrown, and neighborhoods falter. People hold on, others leave; the same is true of institutions, businesses, entire ways of life.
In the process called forest succession, catastrophe and disaster — whether caused by human or non-human forces — are catalysts for regeneration and reorganization. In this moment of environmental crisis, usually suppressed species of plants assert themselves and thrive in the cleared places where decimated trees and other vegetation once stood. The first signs of this regeneration are grasses, weeds, and fast-growing perennials, not majestic old-growth trees towering above. Slowly the forest evolves from weedy plants and brush to large trees. The forest is always changing; even a forest of 500-year-old pine trees will eventually fall, inviting new hardwoods to take their place.
Imagine a process like forest succession occurring in cities: call it urban succession.
A moment of stress is often a moment of transformation, an invitation for more agile and aggressive pioneer species to be the first to establish roots and claim the land. These colonizers will lay the groundwork for a changed landscape. In time, they may rejuvenate the ecosystem and usher in mature, healthy organisms, which grow tall and build strong foundations for future generations – that is, until, as the cycle dictates, a new disturbance advances the process again. Urban succession describes a state of continual change, a constant state of flux. We exist in a state far from equilibrium, with a torrent of forces swirling around us, changing our lives, our environment, and our universe.
The occasion of disturbance in the urban environment, while devastating and demoralizing, can be viewed as an opportunity. It is a call to collective action that beckons individuals to become engaged subjects who strive to make (and remake) the world as they want it to be. Philadelphia is — as it has been throughout its history — at such a crossroads. Institutions are faltering, people are leaving, and it appears that the economic and civic foundations of yesterday are in decline, or at least tenuous.
The cycle of transformation we propose in our model of urban succession is visible in the landscape itself. It can be seen in the bifurcation of Chinatown by the Vine Street Expressway; in the rapid wave of gentrification exploding outward from the city center; in the doubling down on extravagant starchitecture such as the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway; and in the unimaginative building of a casino on our abandoned waterfront, cynically named to reference a long-gone industrial past. Who and what held these landscapes in their previous states? And what forces propelled them from one state to another? What will change the city tomorrow? What role will we play in guiding that transformation?
We invite you to use this analytical tool and make visible this evolutionary process in order to see how abandonment and regeneration are possibly related. Over time, watch the system in the model grow, look for patterns, and build a baseline of understanding that might inform future actions in the city.
Instructions for using the urban succession model:
1. Think of an agent, actor, or force for change in the life the city as you see it. Who or what shapes the city? Who or what drives changes here, both positive and negative? Who or what impacts you and your fellow citizens’ quality of life in this city?
2. Now, choose the category of game piece that best describes the agent, actor, or force that you have thought of. Choose from Nature, Institutions, Built Environment, People, or none of these.
3. Write a description of the agent, actor, or force for change on the game piece.
4. Take your game piece and place it somewhere within the urban succession cycle diagrammed on the table top. Does it belong in Growth, Stagnation, Disaster, Abandonment, or Regeneration — or somewhere where these overlap?
Photos courtesy of Jerry Mann / SPACES
30 Readings on Neutrality as it relates to Art, Politics, Biology, and Space, Volume V in the Think Tank's reader series, was a part of “Public Things” at Analix Forever in Geneva, Switzerland. The texts explore the notion of neutrality within the context of Switzerland’s political neutrality. This reader was created in March 2010 by Katie Hargrave, Meredith Warner, and Heath Schultz.
Volume V, 30 Readings on Neutrality as it relates to Art, Politics, Biology and Space, is part of an occasional series of educational readers by the Think Tank that has yet to be named. This reader was created in conjunction with Prototype for a Pedagogical Furniture II to contain and present Reader V and a PHPM (Publicly Held Private Meeting) Instructional Pamphlet.
As a prototype, this piece is the second iteration of small-scale, mobile furniture which might be deployed in various contexts to assist in educational and dialogical projects. In this version, we included a reader on neutrality as well as an instructional manual on how one might conduct a PHPM (Publicly Held Private Meeting). This gesture was intended to encourage the viewer to use the mobile unit to facilitate his or her own Publicly Held Private Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, a neutral state.
This project is part of an exhibition entitled “Public Things” at Analix Forever and organized by Conrad Bakker. As stated: “The exhibition Public Things focuses on the role of contemporary artworks as ‘public things’ that point to the dialectical relationship between a specific object and its context, between the private space of a gallery and the public space of the city, between a material thing and its network of relations.”
Download the reader → 30 Readings on Neutrality as it relates to Art, Politics, Biology and Space
During the first years of the Think Tank that has yet to be named, the Publicly Held Private Meeting was a format we often used to investigate with others pressing and localized issues within the space of the city. These conversations were performative, collaborative, and site-specific interventions organized according to the logic of the absurdist bureaucracy that once characterized the Think Tank.
What Happens When Governments Collapse?
What Happens When Governments Collapse? convened on September 9, 2009 in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s city hall to explore the possibility of government shut down in the midst of the global economic crisis. Participants included Jethro Heiko, Meredith Warner, Jeremy Beaudry, and Mike Seidenberg.
Scrutinizing the Cartography of Talent
Scrutinizing the Cartography of Talent convened on May 22, 2007 outside a lecture by Richard Florida, who first theorized and describe the Creative Class. It was a conversation about the utilization and marketing of the creative city and the artist as an economic savior. The conversation was initiated by Meredith Warner and included Jeremy Beaudry, Lena Helen, and Kenny Deprez.
So What is Metaphorical Agency Anyway?
So What is Metaphorical Agency Anyway? occurred on December 26, 2006 on the sidewalk in front of vacant riverfront site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The conversation investigated the use of metaphor to narrate social movements and complex political problems. The conversation was initiated by Jethro Heiko and included Meredith Warner, Jeremy Beaudry, and Kenny Deprez.
How do we decide where “from” is?
How do we decide where “from” is? was held on August 20, 2006 in a moving train car of the Market-Frankford El in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The conversation was initiated by Jeremy Beaudry and included Lena Helen, Meredith Warner, and Sharif Pendleton.
On the Sidewalk with Lawn Chairs Looking Professional
On the Sidewalk with Lawn Chairs Looking Professional explored the role of artists in communities and their relationship to gentrification and economic development. It was held in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on July 11, 2006. The conversation was initiated by Lena Helen and included Jeremy Beaudry, Jethro Heiko, and Meredith Warner.