Last Saturday, a teepee popped up in the middle of Clark Park.
It was an unusual sight, and no one really knew what to make of it. A pair of college students contemplated the 20-foot-tall structure from afar, heads cocked in a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Kids were less cautious, running in circles around the white-and-gold canvas and taking turns poking their heads inside. A man stepped in front of the door flap and snapped a selfie with his son.
Whether they simply stared or took the plunge and stepped inside, the teepee was impossible for anyone in the park to miss — and that was creator Philip Green’s whole point.
An Oregon native who moved here in 2011, Green, 30, has always loved creating what he calls “out of the ordinary” installations. Growing up, he was known for throwing parties with intricate decor themes, and in high school he was president of The United People’s Art Club (TUPAC), which once curated a show hung in the stalls of a boys bathroom.
When he began the teepee project, Green envisioned it as a conversation starter, a way to draw people out of their personal bubbles and make connections with neighbors they might otherwise ignore. Two years of planning and sewing and a $5,000 Knight Foundation grant later, it’s obvious he has achieved that goal.
Clark Park is located at an interesting juncture — right where the edge of Ivy League-populated University City bleeds into the low-income landscape of Southwest Philly — and on beautiful days, the crowds it draws are large and diverse, but highly segregated.
Inside the teepee, that division disappeared.
At one point, its serene interior hosted a young black girl wearing paisley jeans shorts, a white lesbian sporting a shock of bright magenta hair, a small dog intently chewing a plastic ball and a reporter sad that her camera lens wasn’t wide enough to capture it all.
So far, Green has pitched the teepee five or six times, always in public spaces. For its first test run, he set it up in a far corner of sprawling FDR park, because he wasn’t sure what kind of response to expect. Within minutes of erecting it, several groups of people started walking toward it from far across the park’s fields, drawn by its novelty. On arrival, they pummeled Green with questions — “Why did you build this? How long did it take?” — that he was only too happy to answer as he invited them to join him inside.
“I realized that there was potential for conversations about the teepee to turn into conversations about much more. ‘How have you seen this park change?’ ‘How have you seen the neighborhood change?’” he explained. Out of all his teepee pitch sites so far — it has also popped up in Dickinson Square and Penn Treaty Park — he views the Clark Park installations as the most successful.
“In West Philly you have people of all these different races and economic backgrounds occupying the same space, but they’re not really interactive — they patronize separate bars, go to separate coffee shops. The teepee is different.”
Poles from a chain-link fence
Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Lenni Lenape didn’t live in teepees (they were a wigwam society), but tribes out on the Great Plains did, and Green’s structure follows their design.
He’s done some very serious thinking on the issue of cultural appropriation — see: recent backlash about the name of Washington’s football team — and has a statement about the topic printed on small cards he hands out to everyone who comes near.
The way he sees it, his creation is in line with the teepee’s original purpose — a gathering space for the community. He’s not making money from it, or hosting mini-raves inside.
“I feel like the purpose I’m using it for is aligned with how it was and is still used by Native American people, as a communal domain,” he said.
Green was inspired to create it after spending a night in a friend’s, one that her father had built some 20 years before. Diving down an internet rabbit hole, he discovered that most DIY teepee instructions, the serious ones, all pointed to a single article published in the January 1970 issue of Mother Earth News.
The piece, itself based on a 1957 book called The Indian Tipi, contained meticulous instructions, which Green printed out and followed as best he could. For the exterior cloth, he visited Jomar Fabrics and scooped up whatever color canvas was on sale. He borrowed an industrial sewing machine and stitched them together, then set out to create the structural backbone.
Traditional instructions call for whittled down saplings to be used as a Great Plains teepee’s poles, but, as Green likes to say, “Philly isn’t known for its abundance of sapling pines.” He spent several days combing the aisles of Lowe’s for a substitute, and found it when he came across the poles that form the top of a chain link fence. They were sturdy, but light.
It only takes two people to pitch the teepee, and it can be completed within half an hour or so. Once it’s up, the interior feels its own little room, and around a dozen people can fit inside.
Right now, there’s no regular schedule for teepee pop-ups — whenever Green has a free Saturday, he messages the Philly Teepee Facebook group (150 members), and asks for a volunteer. He’s busy (and happy) working at his day job at the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, so doesn’t have any plans to formalize the teepee as an incorporated non-profit.
At least not yet. The reaction sparked by the teepee, both in-person and online — by now, dozens of Instagram pics have been hashtagged #phillyteepee — has been extremely gratifying, and Philip glows with excitement whenever he talks about it. He’s currently accepting donations to help fund future pitches (which take time and energy), which he plans to keep doing in a variety of locations.
“I want the Philly Teepee to be a healing space for neighborhoods that are going through change in Philadelphia,” he says. “And we’re definitely not lacking for those.”