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Knight Foundation shines light on city-boosting projects

Building fences, or walls, doesn't make for good neighbors. Tearing down economic barriers and creating friendly public spaces do.

Spruce Street Harbor Park at Penn's Landing.
Spruce Street Harbor Park at Penn's Landing.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Building fences, or walls, doesn't make for good neighbors. Tearing down economic barriers and creating friendly public spaces do.

That's essentially the thinking behind the Knight Cities Challenge Winners Summit now meeting in Philadelphia - with presentations by Knight Foundation grant winners past and present introducing fresh and low-cost strategies to make cities more vibrant and inclusive.

Projects ranged from "Pop-Up City Halls" in Charlotte, N.C., that take council meetings to the citizenry, to an educational eco-science barge floating in the Miami harbor beside million-dollar yachts, to a multi-cultural "New Flavors" food truck in Grand Forks, N.D., that immigrant groups from Africa and Southeast Asia can use to introduce their exotic food.

Philly was a suitable place to hold the second annual summit, as attendees could visit successful community-building sites - from the Schuylkill Banks Trail to the Porch at 30th Street Station to the former Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia. The latter is now being transformed into a mixed-use facility with co-worker spaces, a day care center, outdoor playground (funded by Knight) and - starting this weekend - a free kinetic light and sound show installation, "Vacant America: The Bok Building," by the renowned and local Klip Collective.

For pep rallying purposes, it was hard to beat the "overnight success story" shared Thursday by Groundswell Design Group's David Fierabend at the Spruce Street Harbor Park, in what used to be a "dull, modestly visited area on the Delaware waterfront."

While it opened in the summer of 2014 as a nine week pop-up project financed by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., Groundswell lived up to its name with its faux "South Jersey boardwalk," full of bright colors, lights, sand, snacks and hammocks, now being duplicated at Groundswell projects in Long Beach, Calif., Memphis, and Baltimore.

"It's all about what people like to do in the summer: sit outside, eat and drink," said Fierabend. "And even without much parking, they've figured out how to get here. They're walking in, taking public transportion, which is great. The first summer, we had 500,000 visitors. Last year we expanded the offerings - more food and drink locations, arcade games - and attracted 2.5 million visitors. Nearby hotels added Spruce Street Harbor Park weekend packages. Attendance also went up at nearby tourist locations like the Moshulu and Independence Seaport Museum."

This summer, the waterfront fun zone has expanded northward, with a new miniature golf course - whimsically designed by local artisans under Groundswell's supervision - and a large air conditioned "Crab Tent" run by Chickie's and Pete's, joining the returning Blue Cross RiverRink roller rink.

Back at conference headquarters, 2015 Knight Cities grant winner Lansie Sylvia shared the success of Next Stop: Democracy!, a Philadelphia based project that's been rallying citizenry to vote by placing artful signs at polling places.

Designed by prisoners, students and art professionals, and placed at locations in low voter turnout areas, the 60 sandwich board style works and 10 large billboards contributed by Krain Outdoor Advertising have generated results, said Sylvia. "Forty-six percent of the people that our surveyors talked to at polling places had seen one of the signs, and one in ten said it impacted their decision to vote."

Four Philadelphia ventures are receiving significant funds ($873,364 total) in the 2016 round of Knight Cities Challenge. The Reading Terminal earned an $84,674 grant to introduce ethnic food and its immigrant makers via cooking classes.

Tayyib Smith's "Institute of Hip-Hop Entpreneurship" has garnered the most national attention and one of the biggest chunks of local Knight funding, $300,000 plus, as did Benjamin Bryant's "traveling playground for musicians" project called "The Little Music Studio." (Bryant also created the Philly rec center pool improving "Pop-up Pools" project, a 2015 Knight Challenge winner.)

And for long-term community growth, Knight is putting $146,000 on "20 Book Clubs, 20 Cooperative Businesses."

Conceived by Caitlin Quigley's Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, the project "builds on the 100 plus co-ops already in Philadelphia that run the gamut from food to child care, makers spaces and hardware stores," she said.

While co-ops are often thought of as a hippy-era creation, "there's a great tradition of co-op creation in the African American community that stretches back to the 1940s, and usually started with a 'study group,'" she said. "We're using that term and 'book group' interchangeably, though we'll also be building the discussions and the cooperative spirit with music, films and even comic books, where applicable."