From Brewerytown storefront, selling a new vision and version of city
July 24, 2012By Elisabeth Perez-Luna
The latest demographic numbers show that more and more young university graduates and professionals are staying in Philadelphia.
Do you ever wonder what they're doing here? Many are feverishly designing ways to help transform the city's urban landscape into a place they want to live and invest in.
Now, a well-established national digital publication is adding a Philadelphia voice to capture the energy and purpose of this growing urban activism.
In the 2800 block of West Girard Avenue, a relatively new enterprise has opened an office in an old storefront. The display window is occupied by the vestiges of a kid-size carousel, while roughly constructed wooden chairs stand at the entrance ready to be placed on the sidewalk. This was once a toy store or a retailer for children's clothing, no one really remembers.
But what really intrigues the neighbors in this once-thriving street in Brewerytown is that the new store doesn't seem to sell anything at all.
"We get a lot of questions from people who ask what's going on here," said Diana Lind, executive director and editor in chief of web publication Next American City.
"At first, we said we are a website, so people asked, 'Do you build websites?' No, we are a website, where we write about a lot of issues focused on cities," Lind says. "And then, usually, we end up talking about some of the things like exhibitions and public conversations we're doing within this space every month."
In June, the window was filled with large jars with different colorful sodas. As neighborhood kids stopped to ask about them, the conversation turned to food options as in, "You can find grape soda in the surrounding grocery stores, but no grapes or any other fresh fruit."
This space is the headquarters of Next American City, a national publication that's moving into a digital-only format and is just launching its Philadelphia page. But here nothing really speaks of a high-tech brain trust. It's a simple, almost bare-bones, working space. Without trying too hard, you can hear and feel the very pulse of a noisy chaotic city, trolley car and all. That's exactly the point, Lind said.
'A great city, but a lacking one'
The decision to move into this neighborhood was quite deliberate, she said.
"There's an echo chamber in the urban policy world. They all end up talking about the same things and reinforcing each other's opinions on education systems or transportation or food issues, and so on," explained Lind. "You can have a different kind of conversation when you are in a class-A office space, just emailing each other and communicating on the Internet, than when you are in a neighborhood like Brewerytown, and we are all made aware of how Philadelphia is a great city but also a lacking one."
It also provides a practical insight into the web publication's focus on issues that affect people's quality of life, from government to public education and transportation to the role of arts and culture in the city, immigration, juvenile justice, and so on, said executive editor Ariella Cohen.
"I think it's important, and I talk about this a lot with writers, to translate policy into street-level experience," Cohen said.
The purpose of this site, and other urban development discussion platforms, is to fuel an active debate and conversation that generates social and political pressure for smart changes to the city's substructures. It's about providing the information, ideas and research that will support transformation.
That transformation is already evident, says Lind, in the city's interest in green building, sustainability models and city lanes for bikers.
"Our audience is a mix of people who are really engaged in the city at a professional level, urban planners, architects, designers, and people that are passionate about the issues whether they like to ride a bike, they are interested in bringing more fresh food to neighborhoods, they're concerned about affordable housing and that's a personal passion," says Cohen. "We have a lot of those readers as well."
NextAmericanCity.org has a full-time staff of three, and three fellowships for writers and researchers focusing on Philadelphia. The core staff is made up, in a way, by refugees from their predominantly suburban upbringings. They're investing their professional careers and personal passions into making Philadelphia a thriving, sustainable, diverse city.
The next store front show is a collaboration with a Congreso de Latinos Unidos summer workshop. It's a series of life-size photos of children holding signs about issues that matter to them: school, safety and "no bullying."
Disclosure: Next American City is a partner with the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and WHYY in a series of forums plotting the future of the Ben Franklin Parkway.