Fairhill Elementary School haunted Pepón Osorio: a boxy, unlovely structure at Sixth and Somerset, all graffiti, trash, and broken promises.
The artist and professor at Temple University's Tyler School of Art often rode his bicycle past the building, one of two dozen schools the Philadelphia School District closed in 2013.
"There was a sense of abandonment around the building, of lifelessness," said Osorio, whose work often touches social-justice themes. "And the idea came to me: What if I reactivate this area? How would that look? What if the people whose lives have been ruptured came together again?"
Those bike rides birthed reForm, a project that will culminate this week in an installation inside a Tyler classroom using salvaged materials from the school. On Friday, community members will move abandoned chalkboards, chairs, and desks from Fairhill onto a truck for hauling to Temple Contemporary, Tyler's gallery.
Osorio has assembled a team of 11 Bobcats - mostly former Fairhill students - who will work with him on the exhibit, scheduled to open in August and made possible with a $360,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.
The artists plan to cover every surface with photographs and objects, but more than art, reForm will serve as a place for students to gather.
"The installation of the classroom becomes a platform for them to rethink their own education," said Osorio. "We're working together to figure a way that they can define education on their own terms, and not under the terms of the School District."
That's quite a powerful feeling, said Dante Quinones, who lives in the neighborhood and had a sibling who attended Fairhill. Quinones, 18, still feels angry about the closings and the messages they sent.
"It's crazy," said Quinones. "They want us to succeed, but they give us very few options."
Neighbors were traumatized when the district cited the need to cut costs and shuttered under-enrolled and academically struggling schools.
Two years later, the issue still resonates, said Lynoshka Santa, 18.
"I get off the bus right there," she said, motioning to a spot across the street from the school, on Somerset. "It's weird to get off and not see any kids in the schoolyard."
What she sees instead is stark: a chained front door, blank walls where a bright mural used to stand, graffiti, and broken asphalt.
Chelsey Velez spent kindergarten through eighth grade at Fairhill and every day walks past the building, with its imposing prisonlike fences and "For Sale" sign. What appeals to her about Osorio's project is the idea of preserving what the school meant to her and to the community, despite its rough appearance.
"I want to spread the word about what Fairhill was, what it used to be, how it was a family," said Velez, 18. "It's a loss, but we can learn from it."
Osorio had to jump through hoops to secure permission from the district to get into the school and use some of its abandoned materials. Inside, it was dark and chaotic, with messages scrawled on walls and papers strewn everywhere, as though people left in a hurry.
"Like something you see in a horror movie," Quinones said.
But the Bobcats are looking forward to Friday, when they will put their own spin on "Fun Day," a tradition when Fairhill was open - a time of games and celebration of the year's hard work. They hope 100 people or more will come for food, music, and reflection.
Osorio encourages the Bobcats to dream a little. If you were in charge, he asked them on Friday, what would you want Fairhill to become?
A school, three said with one voice. What if that couldn't happen? Osorio prodded.
"I'd make it into a rec center," Velez said.
"Yeah, with programs - baseball, football, basketball," said Quinones. "That way, it wouldn't feel lost."
Artist Pepón Osorio and the Bobcats - 11 students assisting him on "reForm," an art installation remembering the closed Fairhill School - are hosting "Fun Day," a celebration and remembrance of the school. It is scheduled for 3:30 to 5 p.m. Friday in front of the building at 601 W. Somerset St., Philadelphia.EndText