Artist and musician Camae Ayewa recalled the time when she asked a resident to share her first experience of being in North Philadelphia.
“It seems like a simple question, but we get all these wild first memories,” Ayewa said. “One lady said she saw a police chase (with) a car chasing a man running and the car hit him. It’s like ‘wow that’s your first memory?’”
Ayewa, along with lawyer and writer Rasheedah Phillips, hopes to uncover more stories and recollections about North Philadelphia in a new center they’ve opened on Ridge Avenue. The goal of the Community Features Lab is to preserve the stories and visions of people living in the northern part of the city and to explore its redevelopment. It’s located at 2204 Ridge Ave., in the space of a former pawn shop, between a daycare center and a dry cleaning service.
Through their group, Black Quantum Futurism, they received a 2016 fellowship from A Blade of Grass, a New York based organization that nurtures socially-engaged artwork. The group will occupy the center for at least a year.
“I’m really into what has happened anywhere I go,” said Ayewa, who is originally from Maryland. “I like going to the neighborhoods to see where the most change has come from and where the most history or protests have taken place.”
In particular, Black Quantum Futurism will collect and share the stories from the Sharswood-Blumberg community for future generations to cherish. The Norman Blumberg housing complex was built in the 1960s, first occupied in 1967 and was an 18-story high rise that was imploded earlier this year to make room for a new development space. Phillips and Ayewa hope to also explore the impact of gentrification.
“People are being displaced and they needed some care and treatment,” Phillips said. “There is a way to engage the community when you’re seeking redevelopment without displacing large numbers of people.”
The opening was officially June 18 and the neighbors were invited to come and voice record their stories. Phillips said hundreds of families have been displaced.
“I wanted to create a response and create a way of engaging people about the devastating thing that is happening in this community,” Phillips said. “Really some of the larger goals of the project are to connect people’s experiences. That’s not to say that the community didn’t need redevelopment, of course it did, it was a blighted community.”
Phillips, who represents low-income tenants facing eviction or other housing issues, said some residents felt their voices were not being heard.
“I have a perspective on this about what’s going on,” Phillips added. “We’re going to be doing oral history with people and how they’re experiencing displacement and the trauma of eminent domain and their lack of choice and input into it, along with wanting to get their visions of the future.”
Ayewa said they opened the center here because it’s where they live.
“This project is an extension of everything we do,” Ayewa said. “We are involved in the community, we are here. There’s a lot of things we find, like as far as our artistic community here in Philadelphia, there seems to be a lot of Internet based activism and we’re total opposite. We’re actually here and doing the work.”
The center, which has photos hung of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s old high rise buildings, has interns that staff it during weekdays. Kiana Murphy, 23, is one of them. Murphy says people who identify with the Black diaspora can can use their realities to think more about the future, hence something she is interested in.
“If we don’t, it’s a part of history that’s wiped out,” said Murphy, a graduate school student. “I feel like because of this space here, we’re allowing history to continue.”
Additionally, the center is a community library and resource center, gallery and studio, and workshop and event space. For more information, call (215) 469-1609 or email: email@example.com.