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A pop-up coffee shop perks up a vacant lot

Starting Aug. 7, Sclavi will breathe life into the lot through FreeShop CoffeeShop – a pop-up coffee shop intended to draw the community together through serving free coffee.

Less than a day after landing home from a six-week trip in Thailand, a sleepy-eyed Kathryn Sclavi headed out to promote her latest art project.

Iced coffee and flyers in hand, she walked over to the corner of 10th and Mount Vernon Streets, where lay a just-mowed, vacant lot.

This would become the centerpiece of her next installation. Starting Aug. 7, Sclavi will breathe life into the lot through FreeShop CoffeeShop – a pop-up coffee shop intended to draw the community together through serving free coffee.

"When I was a kid, there was a baseball field in our neighborhood, and then all of a sudden for one week, it turned into this amazing carnival and it was the best thing that could happen," said Sclavi. "That's what I hope happens here. There's this empty lot, and then every Wednesday in the summer it'll turn into this circusy-like canopy with twinkly lights and become a magical experience for people."

The pop-up will run Wednesdays from 6 to 9 p.m. throughout August and September.

A graduate of Tyler's master's program, Sclavi creates art geared toward initiating spaces that will promote interaction and communication.

Since 2005, she has worked with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program as a muralist and teacher for community art projects. This is where she first began noticing that the conversations surrounding art-making often felt more powerful to her than the art itself. "It was almost like the artwork was helping us get to a point of discussion within the community," said Sclavi, referencing her experience constructing murals. "I decided that was what was most important – less about the product and more about the process of people getting together."

With that idea in mind, she crafted a proposal for the FreeShop CoffeeShop and applied for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's Fund for Art and Civic Engagement (FACE). Along with three others, she received a $5,000 grant to put her idea into action.

Sclavi envisions that the FreeShop CoffeeShop will create a public gathering space for people from different parts of the surrounding area and will allow neighborhood organizations to introduce themselves, collaborate and simply exchange ideas.

"I can perfectly envision that carnival from when I was a kid. I'm hoping this too can be a memory and will make people from all over the neighborhood feel good about where they live," said Sclavi. "When you can turn what's already there into something both productive and memorable, especially among poorer communities, that's real life wizardry."

Greenstreet Coffee Roasters will provide its signature, cold-brewed coffee, free of charge, to anyone who shows up to the event.

"Coffee, universally across the world, brings people together," said Sclavi of why she chose it as the incentive to draw people out. "When I was younger, my friends and I would sit at the diner for hours and hours and just talk over coffee. It's a communication-maker."

Under a 10 x 20 foot, brightly painted and hand-sewn tent from reclaimed fabric, Sclavi will set up a collapsible, wooden serving table. Milk crates topped with cushions woven from childhood T-shirts will be scattered around for seating, along with old wooden, basketball chairs from the Philadelphia Salvage Company.

"Creative-placemaking and utilizing what's already present is really environmentally important," explained Sclavi. "It's huge in the art world right now."

The tent will also house a small stage with a mic and amp for anyone inclined to come out and share his or her creativity through words, music or visuals. Each evening will begin with a presentation from a different selected co-host, all consisting of community groups.

The first week, FreeShop CoffeeShop will host the Asian Arts Initiative to make youth in the neighborhood aware of its presence at 12th and Vine Streets. Gallery spaces at the Vox, like Practice Gallery and Napoleon Gallery, will be featured the second week. The following co-host will be Simpson Mid-Town, a senior services and living center at 10th and Green Streets. Some of its members will take to the mic to tell stories about their experiences in the neighborhood.

"A lot of them are interested in talking about civil rights in Philly, from when they were young," said Sclavi. "They'll talk about what the area was like in the '50s and '60s and how different it was from today."

Firth & Wilson, a new, full-service bicycle shop at Ninth and Spring Garden Streets, will host a "bike talk," a play off of NPR's Car Talk, the following week, and PhilaMoca will present a collaboration of video shorts all about Philadelphia for the sixth FreeShop CoffeeShop pop-up.

The series will end on the seventh week with a simple closing celebration, after which the space will return to just another empty, overgrown grassy lot within Philadelphia.

"It is temporary. Even if I wanted something to stay there, that's not the purpose of the project," said Sclavi. "However, I think this [FACE] program should expand and vacant lots should be made more accessible for the public to create and collaborate."

This is the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's pilot year for its FACE grant. Sclavi sees it as a program to facilitate using space in a constructive way while also showing viable buyers the potential it could have.

She would love to see Philadelphia's pop-up scene continue to grow, similar to cities like Portland where pop-up "pods"– clusters of food carts that generally gather on parking lots – are a regular occurrence.

"Philly has so many old warehouses and unused lots and spaces," Sclavi said. "Imaging possibilities of making something out of nothing and joining people together, through food or whatever, is a beautiful idea."

Grace Dickinson blogs at Food-Fitness-Fresh Air.