On Saturday I was at a party in Glenwood, one neighborhood over from Fairhill, where Philadelphia Weekly found 3 of the top 10 drug corners in Philadelphia. But aside from it being pretty cold, there was nothing remotely dangerous here.
The party, hosted by those who live on the 1300 block between York and Letterly, the Philadelphia Public History Truck and the Free Breakfast Program, was a family affair — there were at least 10 kids running around, grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts all gathered for a celebration.
Temple University Masters student Erin Bernard, who runs the History Truck and was there to conduct interviews for her project, did not seem to feel the cold. “Maybe I’m just hyped up,” she said, smiling.
The block party, held at a vacant lot three blocks north of Temple, had two aims, one for each of the organizations that have come together there. It is in part a way to reclaim a space that had been abandoned and fill it with art, and also a way to celebrate and record the history of the neighborhood.
After a quick announcement to the small crowd at the party, Bernard started her real work of the evening, interviewing the older residents of the block.
In the back of the truck(which looks like a vintage bread delivery truck), a dark red rug covered in a floral pattern that’s vaguely reminiscent of 20th century sitting rooms, a small faded wood cabinet and a painting that hangs on one of the “walls.”
The first person that Bernard sits down with is block captain, Gloria King, who had been living on the block since the 1960’s. By this time, the party was in full swing.
The Philly History Truck is a self-described “mobile museum project,” which aims to gather the stories and histories of people from different neighborhoods in the city. Last year, the truck went to Kensington. This year, Bernard’s focusing on North Philly, especially the areas right near Temple.
“I had this feeling that I’m a Temple student, I need to be working in the neighborhood,” Bernard said about her project.
Her work consists of conducting oral interviews and then doing archival work to support the interviews. It all culminates into an exhibit at the end of a year.
In some ways, the project is a political one, because it focuses on getting the stories of those who are not necessarily featured in the official history books. and “newspapers notoriously are focusing on the big things that don’t get to the nuances behind it,” Bernard said.
But it’s important to not paint Bernard as a hero who is swooping in and saving the unrecognized masses.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh you’re giving a voice to the voiceless,’ Bernard said, ‘and I hate that, because everyone has a voice, you just have to hand the microphone over.’”
A lot of her work in the community also relies on partnerships. The reason Bernard was able to host this particular event was because she had met the three co-founders of the Free Breakfast Program: Victor Peterson, Naj Keita and Maura Cuffie. The three have been working at this lot since the summer, cleaning up the space, planting flowers and even starting a mini library.
As the evening went on, everyone starts to drink hot cocoa in an attempt to ward off the cold.
A mix of people from Temple, friends of the co-founders of the Free Breakfast program and neighbors pulled up their cars to the curbs and greet each other with a familiarity that only comes out of years of knowing each other.
The children provided the background music, screaming and cheering as they played catch with a football in the lot.
Artist Theodore Harris set up a portable projector to put images of his artwork and that of Tim Portlock’s on the walls.
King, the block captain, told me she wants a more permanent set-up: “I want a mural,” she said. Harris told her to apply for one on the Mural Art’s Program’s website.
Not all of them are aware of the exact reasons behind why the party was hosted, the kids are certainly too busy playing catch to care about learning history at a party, but those a little older do know and are happy.
“I think it’s fantastic because the young kids on the block don’t know and they need to know, because if you know where you come from then you know where you’re going,” said Anita Marshall-Nelson, whose mother lives on this block. “You can’t make things better if you don’t know the struggles of the people before you.”