Art reclaims and revives the forgotten, broken

There are a handful of fresh sculptures at 11th and York streets. Statues designed by respected artists that are grouped around a well-worn dirt path and are shook by regional rail trains four times an

There are a handful of fresh sculptures at 11th and York streets. Statues designed by respected artists that are grouped around a well-worn dirt path and are shook by regional rail trains four times an hour.

They are said to be bottle trees honoring the lives of North Philadelphians. They were commissioned by the Village of Arts and Humanities, a community arts organization based near Adler Street and Germantown Avenue since the mid 1980s. It is difficult to determine whether the project is of the greatest or the least importance. If the statues are in the most or least important location they ever could be.

Kumani Gantt came to the Village in July 2004, leaving Baltimore. She replaced Lily Yeh, the Chinese-born University of the Arts professor who led the first lot cleanup and all but gave birth to the Village in 1986.

“I had heard of the Village,” Gantt said. “I wanted to be here.”

She speaks purposefully and articulately in the way one might expect of a performing artist. Her talents, demeanor and place in the world of art might seem to come in contrast with the burned-out rowhomes and the Fairhill projects that dominate the sky outside her office. Or perhaps she is just what her position demands.

The Village controls 19 other parks and gardens. They are mostly small plots of land, many of which had been once homes to abandoned buildings. They were backfilled and vacant, until the Village started cleaning and decorating these spaces with artwork, sculptures and murals. The lawns were maintained and the trees were protected. It was about beautifying a neighborhood that wasn’t otherwise often beautified.

The planning for this new exhibit, which began in early 2005 – just half a year into Gantt’s tenure – was seen as another step in this direction. When it was unveiled Sept. 15, dominating the previously underused Baobab Park, the exhibit was to be taken down and moved yesterday.

“We’re staying up for a full year,” Gantt said excitedly, though excitement is hard to gauge for a person trained in speaking with emotion.

The news is perhaps even more encouraging considering two of the pieces were heavily vandalized recently. Despite its 20-year operation, multiple locations throughout Fairhill, and its high profile, the Village doesn’t often struggle with destruction. Having art with permanence allows residents, particularly the young and angry, to understand there is good, there is beauty in the world. There is good, there is beauty at 11th and York. These vandals are the exception.

“I’ve seen people change their patterns to walk past the exhibit,” Gantt said.

A handful of the statues honor legends in Philly’s music scene. A few allude to important historical actors, abolitionists and civil rights activists. Others are a bit more local in their meaning. Elner Dawkins. JoJo Williams. “Big Man.” They are names that mean much more to much fewer people than the others. They are names that otherwise mean much less to much more people with every passing year.

But this is one collection of art. Gantt is more passionate about promoting the Village’s influence, a task as difficult around the world as it is around the block. Every physical addition they make means plenty.

“It extends our reach,” she said. “Really, it provides a level of safety.”

It isn’t tough to imagine what those 19 lots would be without the Village. No one questions if 11th and York and its well-worn dirt path, shaking under the rumbling of a steely SEPTA train, would be different. Gantt, for one, is certain.

“It’s about land reclamation,” she said. “The space becomes the community’s.”

Christopher Wink can be reached at

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