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An Artists Whose Masterpiece is a Transformed Neighborhood

Lily Yeh Helped People Create Hope in North Philadelphia

by Jay Walljasper

Published at WorldChanging.com

Inner city communities face obstacles that often feel insurmountable: crime, poverty, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, social alienation and other tragedies that crush the spirit of people living there. Despair becomes a critical problem as everyone—inside the community and out—loses faith that anything could ever change. A fresh sense of hope is what’s most needed to turn things around.

A sure way to revive hope is bringing people together to work on something they share in common—in other words, a commons. Improving a park, business district, school, community center or even a vacant lot with small steps like planting flowers or picking up litter proves that positive change is possible. The energy generated by little victories builds momentum for bigger things to come.

That’s exactly how artist Lily Yeh sparked a new spirit in North Philadelphia—one of the most hard-hit neighborhoods in America when she began work there in 1989.

In many ways, Yeh was an unlikely candidate to make a difference in a struggling inner city neighborhood. She is not a social worker, urban planner, or economic development expert, not a wealthy philanthropist, political powerbroker, or business executive. She is an artist who grew up part of a socially prominent family in Taiwan (her father was a general in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army) and came to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts, eventually becoming an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts. The tough streets of Philly’s African-American ghetto must have felt as unfamiliar for someone from her background—Asia, Ivy League, art school—as the far side of the moon.

But as a student, she was inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, later, Nelson Mandela. In 1989, she was in Beijing showing her paintings at the Central Institute of Fine Arts when she witnessed the brave and tragic democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. That experience convinced her that being an artist “is not just about making art…It is about delivering the vision one is given…and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.”

She had already begun to put this philosophy into practice. While showing a group of visiting Chinese artists around Philadelphia a few years earlier, she brought them to the studio of dancer Arthur Hall, who asked Yeh to help in reviving a particularly grim stretch of the neighborhood outside his window. Yeh was shocked at the state of North Philadelphia—deteriorating buildings and rubble-strewn lots reminiscent of photographs of bombed-out European cities at the end of World War II—and didn’t quite know where to start.

But she knew something had to be done, so she spontaneously began to pick up trash. This immediately drew the attention of local kids who, she recalls, wanted to know what “this crazy Chinese lady” was up to. Before long their parents were watching too, and Yeh realized she had collaborators for what was to be the most important art project of her life. Soon many people across the neighborhood became involved in cleaning up the vacant lots, painting murals, and creating an “art park”, which became the pride of the community.

Twenty years later, this area is still poor, with high unemployment but hope can be found at the Village of Arts and Humanities. That’s what the small art park has grown into—a tangible symbol of renewal that covers more than 120 formerly abandoned lots with murals, sculpture gardens, mosaics, flowers, community gardens, playgrounds, performance spaces, basketball courts, art studios, even a tree farm.

“The entire community seems to take part in the use of the spaces,” writes Kathleen McCarthy, who nominated the Village for Project for Public Space’s authoritative list of the world’s Great Public Spaces. “As we walked down the street, trying to find one of the parks, a man walking beside us directed us to the Park, and told us the history of it and the wonderful artist, Lily Yeh who started the park. He spoke with pride that this was a part of his community. We sat on the benches made of smashed tile and mirror, making wonderful curves and places to sit. Across from us, women sat and smiled, waved. Children ran over and asked us to hide them during a game of hide-and-seek…. I’ve never felt more welcomed in an unfamiliar place.”

Six neighborhood buildings have been rehabbed into workspaces for Village arts projects. A daycare center has been established and abandoned houses refurbished. A new Village initiative, Shared Prosperity, has been founded to boost economic opportunities in North Philadelphia.

Residents now look forward each year to their annual neighborhood theater festival, featuring plays written by local young people—including several that were later performed as far away as Atlanta, Albuquerque, New Hampshire, Mexico and Iceland. Fall brings the Kujenga Pamoja festival (Sawhili for “together we build”), which culminates in an elaborate coming-of-age ritual for kids who have spent the summer preparing for the festival and working in job training programs.

“One of the most powerful things I learned,” Yeh told Yes! magazine, “is that when you…transform your immediate environment, your life begins to change.”

Yeh’s observation was seconded by James “Big Man” Maxton, who gave up running drugs in favor of making mosaics for Village projects. He went on to teach hundreds of neighborhoods kids both basic masonry skills and the creative dimension of making mosaics. “I was a lost soul in the community, disconnected from my family, looking for a way back to reality on the tail end of a 22-year drug addiction,” he remembered shortly before his death in 2005, crediting Yeh with “teaching me to believe in myself.”

The Village of Art and Humanities has changed how residents of North Philadelphia think about their home. As the neighborhood blossomed with safe public places where people could pleasurably gather, its community spirit and positive sense of itself has grown. And that changes how others view the neighborhood today. Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, notes it, “changed the perception of the [wider] community from ‘there’s something wrong with these people’ to ‘ there’s nothing wrong with these people’.”

Leaving the project in the hands of neighborhood people, Lily Yeh has now founded Barefoot Artists, Inc. which draws on the experience of the Village of Art and Humanities to help struggling communities in the Congo, Kenya, the Republic of Georgia, China, Ecuador, Taiwan, Italy and the Ivory Coast. She has spent a lot of time in Rwanda, as a founder of the Rwanda Healing Project works with children to restore peace, joy and beauty in communities ripped apart by the genocidal civil war.

Looking back on her work in North Philadelpia, Yeh reflects, “When I see brokenness, poverty and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. We are creating an art form that comes from the heart and reflects the pain and sorrow of people’s lives. It also expresses joy, beauty and love. This process lays the foundation of building a genuine community in which people are reconnected with their families, sustained by meaningful work, nurtured by the care of each other and will together raise and educate their children. Then we witness social change in action.”

This is adapted from an article appearing in “Placemaker Profiles,” a gallery highlighting leaders in the global movement to create better communities. It is featured on the website of Project for Public Spaces a New York-based non-profit organization that helps citizens community improvements. See also Great Public Spaces.