You want ideas for how to make cities more successful? Philadelphia has a million dollars' worth.
For the third consecutive year, Philadelphia has dominated the Knight Cities Challenge, winning more than $1 million out of $5 million in urban-revitalization grants that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation offers annually to 26 cities.
The foundation evaluated more than 4,500 proposals – 637 from Philly alone – for grants aimed at creating economic opportunities, attracting talent, and boosting civic engagement. The winners were to be officially announced Monday morning.
Local funding will be divided among five projects, including a workshop for aspiring comic creators, an outdoor immigrant-cuisine marketplace, and a mobile design lab for city service solutions.
George Abbott, Knight Foundation's director for community and national initiatives, said he wasn't surprised that Philadelphia took the largest chunk of funding – again.
"We ask for new ideas and I think that spirit of innovation is very present in Philadelphia," Abbott said, adding, "The ultimate innovation was the foundation of American democracy."
Abbott pointed to urban planner Ben Bryant's pop-up pool project as one of the Knight Cities Challenge's early success stories.
Bryant won foundation funding in 2015 and used it to boost attendance at a Francisville public pool by adding shade trees, poolside yoga, comfortable seating, and other amenities. City officials were initially skeptical of the plan, but have now expanded it to five pools as part of the city's Swim Philly program.
"The first year, the city was sort of inclined to say, 'No we don't want any of this,' " Abbott said. "Once they agreed to do it, they took it on as their program."
Thoai Nguyen, of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Corp., won a $175,478 grant this year with his proposal to start an immigrant-food marketplace in South Philadelphia's Mifflin Square Park.
Nguyen, who came here as a Vietnamese refugee when he was 9 years old, said he wants to revive a vibrant – but technically illegal – network of Southeast Asian food vendors that once flourished in the park. With Knight Foundation funding, they can undergo food-safety training and have access to running water through shipping containers that will be converted into vending operations.
Nguyen hopes the project will create entrepreneurial opportunities, but also serve as a crime deterrent.
"You can park a police car there indefinitely to keep away crime, but I think having families down there is an alternative way to pushing out the bad elements," he said.
Look for Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese, and Vietnamese food vendors. BBQ meats, Laotian sausages, papaya salad, sticky rice, and shaved ice treats.
"I can't tell you how excited I am. This has been a dream of mine for 12 years," Nguyen said. "We're hoping to attract foodies from around the city, but they need to know this is a place you can get really fresh, authentic Southeast Asian street food."
Ariell Johnson of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse will use a $50,000 Knight grant to make space for more programming there, including comic creation, writing workshops, and professional development.
Amalgam, a geek-centric store with an eye toward social justice and political activism, opened on Frankford Avenue in Kensington in December 2015 and has attracted big names such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
"We've already hit some milestones," Johnson said. "But this will allow us to do more."
The largest grant – $318,150 – will go to Philadelphia's government for its plan to improve city services by setting up mobile design labs so "people don't have to travel to City Hall to be part of a redesign conversation," said Anjali Chainani, the city's policy director.
The meetings will bring together city officials, experts, residents, and other stakeholders to improve city services. Chainani said it was too early to discuss which services would be targeted.
"We think we'll have a ripple effect beyond Philadelphia and other cities will be able to learn from this lab, as well," Chainani said.
The other local Knight winners:
• Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an Arab arts and education nonprofit in West Philadelphia, was awarded $180,000 to connect communities through photographic displays of youths' expressions of identity.
• Tayyib Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and Pipeline Philly, was awarded $295,000 to launch a series of community development meetings in several cities, bringing together entrepreneurs, activists, decision makers, and others. A Dream Deferred: PHL Redlining – Past, Present, Future will take an interactive and visual approach to highlight inequality and move public policy.
Last year, Smith founded the Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship though a Knight Challenge grant.