Editor's Note: This article was originally published April 23, 2000
It was a typical summer night along Buist Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. Most of the small, two-story rowhouses were quiet in the hot, still darkness.
Nothing remarkable at all, until sharp cries for help rose up. Len Pannirello heard them. Everyone living on the perimeter of Elmwood Park heard them.
Several neighbors rushed outside and saw a frail old man lying on the walk near the Buist side of the park. His wife stood protectively over him, frantic and shouting. A young man was fleeing down the street.
Without hesitation, three or four people gave chase and tackled the running man, holding him until police arrived. Not much damage was done in the robbery. The elderly couple was shaken but otherwise all right.
But that small drama five years ago proved cathartic: Neighbors banded together to form the Friends of Elmwood Park and worked hard to revitalize the neglected four-acre patch of green in an out-of-the-way corner of the city.
The mugging ignited feelings of concern and civic-mindedness that have helped residents define who they are and what they want. But neighborhood identity, its past hidden and present in flux, sometimes needs help to coalesce.
So now the park is poised to become home for what is believed to be the nation's first public-art tribute to blue-collar people. Last month, the Fairmount Park Art Association selected a proposed monument for Elmwood Park – tentatively called A Century of Labor, by Irish artist John Kindness – as one of five projects inaugurating its New Land Marks program of public art keyed to communities around the city. A Century of Labor is meant to be testimony to both the neighborhood's historical identity and its new-found resolve.
"Our goal is to get public art where it doesn't really exist," said Charles Moleski, manager of the New Land Marks program. "They [Friends of Elmwood Park] are a great community group, a grassroots group, and their enthusiasm is infectious. "
The Century of Labor project is unique, Moleski said. "There are not any monuments to labor in the U.S. that we know of. There are statues to individuals, people like Mother Jones. There are commemorations to industry. A lot of the [Works Progress Administration] things relate to labor, but don't necessarily have the purpose of commemorating the movement. "
The project is significant in its own right. But the process that has led to it – the gathering of neighbors, the concerns and hopes expressed and shared, the uncovering of community identity – is equally, if not more, significant. It has given residents glimmers of hidden possibilities.
Not only has Elmwood Park, created by the then-booming Hog Island Shipyard and donated to the city during World War I, been rescued from decrepitude, it has been reestablished as a center for the surrounding area – much of which also was built by the shipyard.
Residents are looking for widespread union participation in the funding and building of A Century of Labor – further underscoring the neighborhood's sense of itself and its character.
"I think if we had just cleaned up the park and spent all the money to re-cement the walks, it would have been one thing," said Cathy Brady, a union organizer and lifelong community resident who lives on 71st Street, facing the park. "With something such as a monument, a tribute to the working class, I think it really symbolizes what this neighborhood is and will attract working-class people to this neighborhood. We're hoping. And I really think it will make a difference. "
The enthusiastic response to A Century of Labor suggests that when public art is a direct expression of community needs, desires and values, it can be a unifying and reviving force. When detached from community, however, public art is often perceived as serving only aesthetic and bureaucratic imperatives; it becomes "baublized. "
No one in Elmwood Park wants baubles. Nor is that what is in store.
Working with residents, Kindness has designed a central gathering place and focal point for the park.
One section, the "meeting area," will feature a circle of seven bronze tables designed after old blue-jean metal buttons. Some tabletops will display relief images of workers doing their jobs – iron molders, bricklayers. Other tops will represent critical events and organizations in labor history – such as Wobblies (early-20th-century radical unionists) strumming banjos and wearing overalls.
A separate seating area – for "quiet reflection," as the residents like to say – will consist of a ring of high-backed benches facing out toward the park, with large historical images of workers on the bench backs.
Those areas will be tied together visually by a denim-blue paving surface with orange terra-cotta "stitching" – strengthening the idea of jeans and work clothes.
"We actually had a meeting with all of the neighbors and asked for suggestions," Brady recalled. "People suggested a Vietnam memorial, a war memorial, a tribute to Native Americans. And the conversation went in a way where we said, 'What about a tribute to us? To the working people in this city, to the working people in this neighborhood. ' And they were like, 'Yeah! That way it covers everybody. Who here isn't a laborer? ' Everybody was. "
Kindness, familiar with Philadelphia through a residency at the Fleisher Art Memorial and a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, was more than sympathetic. He grew up in Belfast, where his father worked in the great Harland & Wolff shipyard – birthplace of the Titanic "and other stuff that didn't sink," Kindness said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in County Carlow.
"What impressed me about [the Friends of Elmwood Park] is the way they took control of their situation," Kindness said. "Cultural interventions only work if the residents want them to. You can't drop a cultural initiative in somewhere like a parachute into uncharted wilds. "
Kindness' idea for a gathering or meeting area grew from a simple observation: There was none.
"When we first met, there was nowhere to meet, the benches were cracked, there was nowhere to sit in the park," Kindness said. "I saw the need and I remember saying art is about number five on the list of priorities here. When I saw the park, the walks were cracked, there was flooding in the fields, the trees were dying. A lot of that has now been addressed. "
A Century of Labor, which everyone hopes will be completed by Labor Day 2001 at a cost of $100,000, will be, then, the climax of a neighborhood effort that began with the park holdup in 1995.
"That mugging was the topper," Pannirello said the other day, reflecting on events since the night he heard screams on Buist Avenue.
"It was right across from our home, and the neighbors started to rally. "
They held a community fund-raiser – an OctoberFest in the park – to pay for the training and outfitting of bicycle police to patrol the area. Park crime promptly disappeared.
"We felt we were sitting here languishing in a wasteland," said Joe McCarron, a Boston native who has lived close to Elmwood Park for 13 years. "No one even knew we were there. "
But there were some surprises on that front.
Anna Verna, whose council district covers Elmwood Park, met with residents and cut loose some capital funds for park repair. She also put residents in touch with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which provided funding for trees and equipment.
"It was our feeling that if the park looked nice, it would stay nice," said Brady. "If it looked like a crack park, it would be a crack park. . . . We thought if we could beautify the park, maintain it, keep it clean and neat, people would use it. That has worked. "
But for all the effort put into the park and the monument, for all the hopes kindled and plans spawned, the effort has still not made much of a dent in one of the neighborhood's oldest and most intractable problems: racial conflict.
Southwest Philadelphia is a patchwork of small neighborhoods, each with a historical racial identity. As in many other neighborhoods, when that racial identity is called into question, anxiety and tension rise.
That has certainly been the case around Elmwood Park. In recent years, working-class African American families have purchased homes in this traditionally white area.
"There is a lot of tension in the neighborhood," said McCurran. "That was another reason we wanted to get people involved – so they could get to know each other. . . . There are houses for sale, which is another white-flight thing. But we are saying: Why do you feel you have to leave because black people are moving in? Why don't you stay and fix up the park? Learn to meet your neighbors. "
Marcy BonDurant of the Horticultural Society has worked extensively with residents on the park. She believes reclaiming this patch of green is an essential first step in pulling the neighborhood together.
"It allows people to come together in a space that's neutral," BonDurant said. "They start talking about other things as they paint the park bench. It might be the abandoned houses across the street. Or the prostitution in the park. Or abandoned cars. Parks are also really, really about kids. So neighbors can focus on the next generation – making it safe for the kids. "
Pannirello understands this point, how the park and its art project allow this to happen.
"Yes, we are trying to revitalize the neighborhood," he said. "Sure it was a middle-class white neighborhood. Sure it's changed. Sure people have fled. But there are a lot of good people who've moved into the neighborhood. They're working people. They're raising families. And as long as I feel my children can walk out of the house and feel safe, I don't have a problem.