The New Africa Center, in collaboration with HopePHL and Penn Praxis, has been diligently working to develop a neighborhood plan that revolves around the creation of a cultural district named "The New Freedom District." After a series of community engagement sessions, on Thursday, May 4, 2023, the organizations activated the vacant lots on Lex Street as the first site to reimagine due to its status as the "gateway to the business corridor."
Dante Leonard, HopePHL's Commercial Corridor Manager reflected on how special this project was for him, HopePHL and the community. "I have a passion for helping people and bringing people together to proactively solve problems and collectively build solutions. This is exactly what the community has done in bringing this once vacant and forgotten space back to life. The story of Lex Street has left a mark on Philadelphia history. It is a great feeling to be involved in this project that has the potential to positively engage young residents in this community. I have lived and worked in West Philadelphia my entire life. This neighborhood is very much a part of my fabric as a man, father, and community leader."
Recently, the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design launched a Studio+ course that aims to explore how storytelling can drive design justice. The course is a real-world application of the West Philadelphia community's ambitious vision for the New Freedom District. The design work, which began 12 months ago with the New Africa Center and its trusted partners, seeks to preserve, reimagine, and make visible the valuable heritage in The New Freedom District neighborhoods, including Belmont ("the Bottom"), Mill Creek, Mantua and engaging many of those who were displaced from Black Bottom.
The course covers various team-based works under the broad banner of "living heritage." These include Heritage and Archives, Landscape Design, Digital Placemaking, and Cultural and Commercial Policy. Through this approach, the teams are uncovering and curating powerful overlooked stories that lend themselves to art, design, planning, and preservation agendas. The teams are practically shaping short-term and long-term spatial tactics such as digital storytelling installations, monument-making, cultural tourism and planning strategies, public space designs on community memory, and public workshops for community members and students in local high schools.
In attendance at the event were students from West Philadelphia High School and businesses such as 215 Wings, SKS Event Space, Plush Events, Supreme Oasis, 8 Brothers Supermarket, Jared Alexander Studios, Sweeties Sweets, Giller Realty, Redemption Body Wellness, We Embrace Fatherhood, Full Court Development, the New Africa Center and HopePHL.
The event marked an important step forward in the New Freedom District's development, which will serve as a testament to the power of storytelling and community engagement in promoting design justice.
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