Chinatown North Social Practice Lab

Asian Arts Initiative

Funding Received: 2012
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
March 14, 2013

Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center in Philadelphia. The organization’s current programs include a public performance season, a gallery exhibition series, artist residencies, and youth workshops that focus on telling the stories of Asian Americans and the diverse communities of which Asian Americans are a part. Prompted to relocate due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center five years ago, Asian Arts Initiative is now in a new home at 1219 Vine Street, and developing its building as a multi-tenant facility to serve as an anchor in the development of the Chinatown North neighborhood.

ArtPlace’s grant will support Asian Arts Initiative to renovate the third floor of its building to create more artist studio space, as well as support the inaugural year of a Social Practice Lab through which Artists-in-Residence will work in partnership with a diversity of residents and neighborhood organizations to create projects – which could be at public sites including storefront windows, restaurant tables, an outdoor plaza, a viaduct tunnel, a parking lot—and contribute to shaping the vision of the neighborhood’s future.

ArtPlace interviewed Gayle Isa, Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative, who first became active in Chinatown through working on a documentary film about the community’s organizing efforts when a federal detention center was proposed in the neighborhood in 1993.

ARTPLACE: Where does this movement go next?  What ideas did you gain or lessons did you learn that you plan to apply to your initiative?  What did you share about your initiative that was surprising to you or to other participants?  What new opportunities for your initiative did you identify from conversations with other creative placemakers?

Isa: Aside from affirming that Florida is a great state to visit in the middle of a Northeast winter, I was able to gain a lot of insight from my peers during the ArtPlace gathering in Miami. I was also struck by the different approaches and perspectives on “creative placemaking” – which were far more varied than I had expected.

In particular, it was interesting to hear some rather polarized reactions to the Wynwood neighborhood, where I found myself impressed and excited by much of the artwork on the walls, but uneasy about a model of neighborhood development that seems to have been so reliant upon a single real estate developer’s vision, and that also seems to draw more heavily on visitors from outside rather than community members within the neighborhood.

I think we are trying to achieve a balance of both in our own neighborhood. Through our Social Practice Lab and the projects that our Artists-in-Residence are pursuing, we are engaging and building relationships with existing residents and workers while also starting to shift perceptions of people outside the neighborhood about the amenities that might make Chinatown North an interesting, worthy, and for some “safe” place to visit.

With support from the Educational Foundation of America, who was introduced to us through ArtPlace, Asian Arts Initiative will be leading a visioning process to imagine transforming the alleyway behind our building into an outdoor gallery and public gathering space. Running four blocks through our neighborhood, Pearl Street includes a diversity of constituents – including homeless men inside and outside a shelter on one end of the street, and luxury loft apartments being developed on the other end – who we hope to connect through the physical renovation of the alleyway as well as through interpersonal relationship building and dialogue that we are trying to ensure is part of the planning process itself.