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November 27, 2012

An Artist Whose Masterpiece Is a Neighborhood Transformed

One of the biggest hurdles challenging poor inner city communities is despair as people loses faith that anything could ever change. A fresh sense of hope is what’s most needed to turn things around.

A proven way to revive hope is bringing people together to work on something they share in common—in other words, a commons. Improving a park, business district, school, community center or even a vacant lot with small steps like planting flowers or picking up litter proves that positive change is possible. The energy generated by little victories builds momentum for bigger things to come. That’s exactly how artist Lily Yeh sparked a new spirit in North Philadelphia—one of the most hard-hit neighborhoods in America when she began work there in 1989.

In many ways, Yeh was an unlikely candidate to make a difference in a place like North Philadelphia. She is not a social worker, urban planner, or economic development expert, not a wealthy philanthropist, political powerbroker, or business executive. She is an artist who grew up part of a socially prominent family in Taiwan who became an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts.

But as a student, she was inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, later, Nelson Mandela. One day she was visiting the North Philadelphia studio of dancer Arthur Hall, who asked Yeh’s help in reviving the neighhorhood. Yeh was shocked at the deteriorating buildings and rubble-strewn lots reminiscent of photographs of bombed-out European cities at the end of World War II—and didn’t quite know where to start.

But she knew something had to be done, so she spontaneously began to pick up trash. This immediately drew the attention of local kids who, she recalls, wanted to know what “this crazy Chinese lady” was up to. Before long their parents were watching too, and Yeh realized she had collaborators for what was to be the most important art project of her life. Soon many people across the neighborhood became involved in cleaning up the vacant lots, painting murals, and creating an “art park”, which became the pride of the community.

Now years later, this area is still poor, with high unemployment but hope can be found at the Village of Arts and Humanities. That’s what the small art park has grown into—a tangible symbol of renewal that covers many formerly abandoned lots with murals, sculpture gardens, mosaics, flowers, community gardens, playgrounds, performance spaces, basketball courts and art studios.

“The entire community seems to take part in the use of the spaces,” writes Kathleen McCarthy, who nominated the Village for Project for Public Space’s authoritative list of the world’s Great Public Spaces. “As we walked down the street, trying to find one of the parks, a man walking beside us directed us to the Park, and told us the history of it and the wonderful artist, Lily Yeh who started the park. He spoke with pride that this was a part of his community. We sat on the benches made of smashed tile and mirror, making wonderful curves and places to sit. Across from us, women sat and smiled, waved. Children ran over and asked us to hide them during a game of hide-and-seek…. I’ve never felt more welcomed in an unfamiliar place.”

Neighborhood buildings have been rehabbed into workspaces for Village arts projects and abandoned houses refurbished. Residents now participate in youth after-school programs, creativity summer camps, writing labs, and the Parent University.

“One of the most powerful things I learned,” Yeh told Yes magazine, “is that when you…transform your immediate environment, your life begins to change.”

The Village of Art and Humanities has changed how residents of North Philadelphia think about their home. As the neighborhood blossomed with safe public places where people could pleasurably gather, its community spirit and positive sense of itself has grown. And that changes how others view the neighborhood today. Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, notes it, “changed the perception of the [wider] community from ‘there’s something wrong with these people’ to ‘there’s nothing wrong with these people’.”

Leaving the project in the hands of neighborhood people, Lily Yeh has now founded Barefoot Artists, Inc. which draws on the experience of the Village of Art and Humanities to help struggling communities in the Congo, Kenya, the Republic of Georgia, China, Ecuador, Taiwan, Italy and the Ivory Coast. She has spent a lot of time in Rwanda, as a founder of the Rwanda Healing Project works with children to restore peace, joy and beauty in communities ripped apart by the genocidal civil war.


p(photo-credits). Rwanda Healing Project. Photo copyright © 2007 by a.magazine.

Looking back on her work in North Philadelpia, Yeh reflects, “When I see brokenness, poverty and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. This process lays the foundation of building a genuine community in which people are reconnected with their families, sustained by meaningful work, nurtured by the care of each other and will together raise and educate their children. Then we witness social change in action.”


p(photo-credits). Rwanda Healing Project. Photo copyright © 2007 by a.magazine.

This is adapted from an article appearing in “Placemaker Profiles,” a gallery highlighting leaders in the global movement to create better communities. It is featured on the website of Project for Public Spaces a New York-based non-profit organization that helps citizens community improvements. See also “Great Public Spaces”:http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/.