Although some people call Norris Homes “the projects,” Dewey Denby, 64, likes to call it a village or a community.
“We gotta do a documentary of this…to tell the story and the experience that we had down here,” said Denby, a Norris Homes resident.
On Oct. 2, residents of the Norris Homes, an affordable housing development east of Main Campus, were given a 90-day notice to evacuate their homes.
Pilot Projects gallery co-director Chris Hammes, Norris Homes residents and other Philadelphia-based artists collaborated on the exhibit “The Mighty Mighty Norris: Art, Life, and History at Philly’s Norris Homes,” to preserve the memories of the community before, during and after the demolition of Norris Homes. The exhibit will run until Sunday at Pilot Projects on 5th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
The Norris Homes development was built in the 1950s by the Philadelphia Housing Authority on 11th Street between Berks and Diamond.
The Norris low-rise units will be torn down and replaced with upgraded developments available to low-to-mixed income Philadelphians by the year 2020.
“This is a moment where Norris is really in transition,” said Jennie Shanker, a muralist and an adjunct art education and architecture professor. “It might be a really great opportunity to show people, who aren’t familiar with Norris, to familiarize them with some of the history that’s there.”
Shanker became involved with the exhibit through Hammes, who runs the gallery. He asked her if she wanted to showcase any of her work at the exhibit.
“So I said to Chris, I would love to have [the] opportunity to…talk to people about what’s happening at Norris, and straighten out any misconceptions… to really work on further collecting the history that came out of this community,” she said.
Shanker, the co-founder of Vox Populi Gallery on 11th Street near Callowhill, has worked with the Norris Homes community since 2014, and has partnered with Donna Richardson, the CEO and president of Norris Community Resident Council, and Donna’s daughter, Nakia Short, collecting photographs, household items and other memorabilia from residents in the community for the exhibit.
The exhibit displays candid photographs of Norris Residents in the community and artwork from students at the Norris Homes after-school and summer camp program. The students made posters of their homes and painted flags.
“There’s a number of photographs… and it goes through the history of Norris, from before it broke ground to the time when the tower was around to what it was like when people were living there and what it’s like now that it’s being boarded up,” Shanker said. “It’s a highly compressed history.”
In March 2011, PHA tore down the 11-story high rise, also known to Norris residents as “the tower” on 11th Street near Diamond. Shanker said many Norris residents felt that the demolition was the beginning of the end.
The exhibit also displays a looping video, recorded by Shanker, observing Norris residents’ reactions to finding out about the demolition and relocation, and videos of Norris students playing and dancing during their after-school program.
“We did a lot of things around focusing on homes and focusing on things like mapping the neighborhood…just sort of recognizing where you live is your home,” she said. “It’s more than just your house, it’s more than just your family.”
The name of the show, The Mighty Mighty Norris, comes from the kids who walk home from Paul Dunbar Elementary School on 12th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue back to the Norris Homes after-school program at the Norris Community Center, chanting, “We are the Norris, the mighty mighty Norris.”
“The children are so important,” said Ronald Armour, 75, a Norris Homes resident and community activist.
Armour has lived in the Norris Homes community nearly his entire life and has worked with Shanker by contributing to the visual portion of the exhibit.
“It’s hard to make the adjustment,” said Armour about the relocation of the Norris residents. “I was there from 1943, all the way up. This [redevelopment] is a metamorphosis. [You] put positive energy-positive in, positive out.”
“Artwork is a conversation piece, that’s what I believe and the younger generations need to be subjected to art…so that they can understand where they come from,” he said.
The exhibit also displays salvaged household items, like an original Norris banister and original Norris door and entrance that were saved from a boarded-up home.
Shanker wants Philadelphians to never forget the Norris Homes community and its place in the city’s history. Shanker created and completed the Norris Homes Historical Marker mural at 10th and Norris Streets in November 2015, which depicts facades of several Norris Homes entryways.
“This is a landmark,” Shanker said. “And this is here because when houses disappear and other buildings get built on top of it, nobody’s ever going to know what was there before.”
Shanker said it’s unclear if many of the Norris residents will return after the redevelopment. She said the move back may be traumatic for some.
She added that she wants to continue to follow the former Norris Homes residents a year after the redevelopment is finished and observe the changes people go through during this “transitional phase.”
“I’d like to create one big yearbook out of all of this, or to create a series of books that can go into libraries,” Shanker said. “And I’d like for all the materials to go to a museum or archive somewhere where this community can be found and their voice heard.”