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Art Museum puts gentrification on center stage

Philadelphia Assembled, opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building Saturday and running through Dec. 10, features stories about neighborhoods and displacement.

Artist Staci Moore's cards about displacement will be on display at the Art Museum.
Artist Staci Moore's cards about displacement will be on display at the Art Museum.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Staci Moore has lived in her two-bedroom Northern Liberties apartment for 24 years. As $400,000 condos have risen all around her, she's said a little prayer of thanks that her landlord hasn't priced her out of the home she shares with her son.

Sometimes the creeping fear of displacement — intensified by the 10 months she spent homeless — prompts her to reach for her gel pens and sketchbook.

Moore, 49, an artist who also works for the state's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, created a series of hand-drawn greeting cards that will be featured in the exhibit Philadelphia Assembled, opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building on Saturday and running through Dec. 10.

In one image, a hand holds a set of keys, representing the hope, memories, and loss associated with all the places a person will live in a lifetime.

"In a way, artists are looked upon as gentrifiers until we get priced out, too," said Moore, who is now board chair of the Women's Community Revitalization Project, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing for women and children. "For the Philadelphia Art Museum to take on this huge project and go out into communities and to begin to foster real relationships gives me hope. It feels bigger than art."

The massive exhibit is meant to highlight the experiences of communities often marginalized, including those in rapidly changing neighborhoods. The project, perhaps the most community-collaborative art installation the museum has hosted, includes the work of more than 150 artists, activists, construction workers, residents, and nonprofits in an attempt to connect the museum to the neighborhoods and issues facing Philadelphia today.

Planning for the exhibit, led by Dutch visual artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, started in 2013 and involved more than 60 public events to bring art into the community and find out what residents thought about their changing neighborhoods.

Some of the work was created by Philadelphia artists who have themselves been pushed out of homes. Other pieces focus on the histories of Philadelphia's neighborhoods, dating back 200 years.

Kevin Maguire designed and built the wooden frame of a 33-foot-deep, 13-foot-wide Philadelphia rowhouse that will become a performance space for actors, poets, historians, and readings at the exhibit.

As a builder in Philadelphia, Maguire has worked on upscale developments as well as low-income housing projects and heard objections raised over both.

"I've been, to a small degree, responsible for gentrification," he said . "I don't vilify gentrification, because when I see a neighborhood completely declining and there's no investment in it, it's not good for the people who live in those neighborhoods. On the other hand, it gets to the level where people who have always lived there can't anymore."

The exhibit features five "atmospheres," or categories: Reconstruction, Sovereignty, Futures, Sanctuary, and Movement.

Denise Valentine, a Philadelphia storyteller who focuses on neglected African American histories, led the Reconstruction team, which includes artwork about gentrification and displacement.

As a reenactor, she has portrayed abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley, the first published female African American poet.

Valentine, who founded an ancestral remembrance day to recall Pennsylvania's role in the slave trade, believes any neighborhood conversation should have as much to do with its past as its present.

"It's all based on finding, preserving, and sharing the lost histories from these changing neighborhoods," Valentine said. "As neighborhoods disappear, so do their stories, their histories."

For Assembled, Valentine researched the origins of street names around the city, many of which were named after slave owners.

Also on display will be a 6-by-6-foot quilt, Kensington Memories, with photos from 70 years of neighborhood life. There are maps and photos of a 1951 baby parade, a shuttered factory in the 1970s, and an image of people waiting in line for affordable housing in 1981.

Betty Leacraft, who created the quilt, knew little about Kensington. When she was growing up, she said, black people didn't go there.

"I learned something all these years later and I think the lesson is, 'Ok, if people don't understand anything about each other, they're never going to be able to come together because there's a lot people can find in common, but if you start with differences you may never get beyond that.' "

Leacraft was born and raised in West Philadelphia, where her grandmother introduced her to sewing. She lived there until about a year and a half ago, when a series of issues, including spiking rent, forced out of her apartment. She now lives near Temple University.

"I was sad, but I'd been there a while. It was probably time for a change," Leacraft said. "I think what's important is that we talk about these changes, what's happening, to who and why."