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Part safe space, part beacon, West Philly’s Urban Art Gallery ‘bridges the gap between violence and peace’

Typically, the streets are empty on days following violence. But this time, musicians set up on the sidewalk to play for the community. And this time, people came out to listen.

Christian "Sap" Tizon teaching his students how to handle the guitar in a free music class at Urban Art Gallery 262 S. 52nd Street Philadelphia Pa June 16, 2018
Christian "Sap" Tizon teaching his students how to handle the guitar in a free music class at Urban Art Gallery 262 S. 52nd Street Philadelphia Pa June 16, 2018Read moreRAYMOND W HOLMAN JR / For the Inquirer

It was a Friday night in March when musician Christian "Sap" Tizon and his band were rehearsing in West Philadelphia's Urban Art Gallery.

Then, over the music, they heard loud popping sounds. Through the large plate-glass windows, they saw flashes of light in the darkness.

They knew it was gunfire.

Typically, the streets are empty on days following violence. But this time, after getting an OK from gallery owner Kalphonse "Karl" Morris, Tizon and his band, Beatpeace (as in "be at peace"), set up on the sidewalk to play for the community. And this time, on that night in 2016, people came out to listen.

"It bridges the gap between violence and peace" is what Tizon likes to say.

>> READ MORE: An interview with Kalphonse Morris of Urban Art Gallery

West Philadelphia's 52nd Street is crammed with dollar stores and sneakers shops, barber shops and nail salons. In one block, Parham Chapel sits one storefront away from Cousin Danny's Lounge.

And then there's Urban Art Gallery, the five-year-old brainchild of Morris, a postal carrier, real estate investor, and art lover.

As its name suggests, it is a gallery — in fact, it often displays the work of artists who say it's difficult to land a Center City gallery. But it's also part safe space, part beacon, part community hub.

On Saturday mornings, there are free, hour-long music and art classes for children and teens. Community residents lease space for bridal showers, birthday and painting parties, or networking events. Sometimes there are pop-ups for small-business owners who can't afford renting their own space.

Neha Mistry, an artist who lives in Frankford, called it one of the best galleries she's worked with.

"People like to think what they see across the street is our culture," Mistry said, nodding across Irving Street to a large sign advertising cold beer. "But our art is our culture, too."

>> READ MORE: Philadelphia's Urban Art Gallery highlights Caribbean American artists, celebrates Caribbean American Heritage Month

Tempest Carter is the 52nd Street corridor manager for the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia, and she holds her monthly stakeholders meetings at the gallery. Urban Art Gallery's presence has inspired the idea to transform the corridor, which also includes Hakim's Bookstore and the Bushfire Theatre, into an arts district.

But there is also a history of violence here.

"It's definitely one of our high-crime areas," said Capt. Greg Riley of the 18th Police District. A recent crackdown that resulted in the arrests of prominent drug dealers has moved a lot of the gun violence further west, he said. But burglaries remain prevalent.

At the gallery, the teachers aim to provide peace and reduce stress for children living within, or close to, violent neighborhoods.

"Art saved my life," said Shanina Dionna, one of the teachers, who cited research where children successfully expressed their feelings through art when they couldn't find the words otherwise. Her own work focuses on increasing awareness of mental health issues.

Now, when violence impacts the neighborhood, Morris and the crew of gallery artists and musicians know to go into action, and hold what they call an "Emergency Peace" by playing on the sidewalk. Morris gets out a grill and cooks hot dogs and hamburgers for anyone who stops by.

It counteracts the trauma. And, said Tizon, who teaches guitar and songwriting at the gallery, "people who may feel uncomfortable with the idea of walking into an art gallery can get a sense of what it offers outside its walls."

One time, when some police officers approached, Morris assumed they were going to ask them to clear the area.

"But they grabbed some food and started hanging out," he said. "That actually helped them bond with the people. They weren't policing in a sense, but they were just there talking to people and taking part in the festivities."

On a recent Saturday, about 20 children walked into the brown-brick building's entrance past an orange-abstract painting, a 76ers logo, and a portrait of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, to two long tables to paint color wheels and learn the basics of drawing animals. On another floor, other kids were playing guitars with Tizon.

One student, Indya Berrian-Rogers, first took music lessons a few years ago, but it didn't work out: The cyber charter school student is shy and reserved and doesn't always feel she can trust new people.

These days, after a year and a half at the Urban Art Gallery, a block from her house, the 15-year-old has recorded three songs that she cowrote with her teacher.

One, "Goodbye Shy," is her favorite.

Always had the answers in my class
I never raised my hand
Conversations I should have had — they just don't understand
Music has been the only place I can go
Where I can just be me,
Now I can walk into a big crowded room
And I will feel so free.

Amber Pettus, who travels from Germantown to bring her two daughters, Erin, 8, and Peyton, 6, for art classes, has noticed that the gallery has changed the vibe of the area. Punchey's Seafood next door is being renovated to include a new restaurant and apartments.

"It's a resource for the kids. It's a resource for the whole community," said Pettus, a business owner. "If anything, the presence of the art gallery and the art and music lessons can show people what is possible for the neighborhood."