Philly Community Uses Theater as a Planning Tool

"Stories are data with soul."

Community members of Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, above, are laying a foundation for commercial corridor revitalization. (Photo by Monique Brand)

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Faced with the double whammy of disinvestment and powerful institutions on its borders with agendas of their own, several groups of African-American activists in West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood in the 1970s adopted a strategy designed to put them at the center of the conversation over the neighborhood’s future direction. The motto they adopted: “Plan or be planned for.”

One way a community can plan the future before the planners do is to understand its past. And in most communities, that past is contained not so much in the brick-and-mortar structures themselves but in the stories behind them — the people who built and lived in them, the institutions they housed and still house today, and the connections the people who know (about) them have with others in the neighborhood.

Lisa Jo Epstein, executive director of the Philadelphia-based theater group Just Act, knows the power that can flow from stories. Schooled in the practice of the “theater of the oppressed,” she has spent the last several years helping ordinary people reach inside themselves to devise ways to effect social change using theater as a tool.

Her latest venture along these lines is to help communities learn about themselves and their assets through storytelling as a catalyst for planning. For the last two years, she worked with residents and city officials in Chester, Pennsylvania’s oldest and poorest city, to develop a “cultural asset map” that serves as a catalyst for the revival of the city’s downtown and main cultural corridor through a story-based, community-driven project called “Chester Made.” This year, she’s embarking on a bigger project: helping a diverse, historic and fragmented big-city neighborhood come together so that it’s ready to tell the planners what the future should look like when they arrive.

That neighborhood is Philadelphia’s Germantown, where Epstein lives.

”My work in Chester enabled me to pair my theater-of-the-oppressed empowerment work with community leadership,” she says. “But it struck me that I’d been doing this work in communities where I don’t live.”

In her new “hometown” project, Epstein is working with the Germantown United Community Development Corporation to lay the foundation for what it hopes will not only be a strategy for commercial corridor revitalization but also a community-led development plan that can be incorporated into the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s Northwest Philadelphia District Plan.

“I’m a citizen planner,” says Epstein, who is a graduate of the Planning Commission’s Citizens Planning Institute. “I also know Andy Trackman [executive director of GUCDC], and I knew that the City Planning Commission will be doing its district planning from late 2017 into 2018.”

Epstein approached Trackman and Emaleigh Doley, GUCDC’s commercial corridor manager, she says, ”about doing arts-based civic engagement to help them grow community involvement in the planning for the business corridors.” Both happened to be thinking much the same thing, and were extremely receptive to Epstein’s pitch. While the focus is on the business corridor, they’re also working with other organizations to develop a comprehensive neighborhood plan, something that hasn’t been done since the 1950s. As the Planning Commission’s comprehensive “Philadelphia2035” effort hasn’t yet come to Northwest Philadelphia, all three want to make sure that when it does, Germantown will be ready with recommendations created by a broad cross-section of the entire community.

Using theater as the basis for engaging the community served another purpose: It would make the process fun.

“We want the public participation part of the planning process to be fun, interesting and engaging for people to attend, in contrast to what usually happens at community meetings of this type,” Doley says.

It also dovetailed perfectly with a statewide project sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. Called “Strengthening Communities, Heart & Soul,” the PHC program relies on the “community heart and soul” engagement process the foundation developed. It seeks to elicit from community members the things that endear their communities most to them, and story collecting is an important part of that process.

“Stories are data with soul,” Epstein explained to the roughly 25 people who turned out for the Germantown project’s initial meeting last month. Participants began by reviewing census data to tease out the socioeconomic and demographic profile of the neighborhood. Then they were encouraged to identify people and institutions that either represented or served each or several of the various groups. This resulted in a map of connections that resembled an old-fashioned telephone switchboard; GUCDC will use this map to reach out to the community members and organizations the participants identified in order to draw them into the story circle.

One of the problems some Germantowners see with the theater-based approach stem from Germantown’s being, as they put it, “too big.” (The neighborhood population is over 60,000.) Neither Trackman nor Doley share this view; in fact, it’s their hope that from this process, stronger connections will be forged among the various neighborhood and community groups working to make Germantown a stronger community with business districts that serve both its longtime residents and the neighborhood’s more recent arrivals, whose expectations sometimes diverge from those of the older community members.

“I want to see more of the money Germantowners earn spent in Germantown,” Doley says. Germantown’s other community development corporation, Germantown Restoration, is also a member of the planning collaborative and wants to see more opportunities for Germantowners to earn their money in the neighborhood. There’s certainly common ground to be found here, and Doley, Trackman and Epstein are now going about finding it by having community members tell their stories.

This article is part of a Next City series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: philadelphiaurban planningcommunity-engaged designcommunity development corporations

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