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Lessons from Philly


Yeah – it was a kick-back, get-down quick weekend trip…but even on vacation, it’s hard not to think about the beloved, funky city we leave behind. Myself and fellow Groundworkers found ourselves in the one and only Philadelphia this past weekend to attend an art opening for Groundwork! co-founder Dena Haden at the AUTOMAT Collective in the Vox Populi building. But you know we were also looking for lessons in urbanism from the City of Brotherly Love which could be applied back home. Here’s a few of those observations:


Build it better

See that parking garage in the photo? Now, imagine it on Elm Street. Yes – the grey, hulking mass of stone and concrete that everyone loves to hate doesn’t deserve our scorn; it needs our pity.

Because no one gave it the tender loving care it should have had at birth. Look again at the photo. That’s not a multi-million dollar architectural statement in Philly. That’s simple care and attention to detail. A functional building needn’t be deprived of a soul. Skip some mortar and swaddle it in some color and glass and then you got yourself a parking party.

The lesson? Don’t settle for poor planning and/or deadly dull design – which too often yields ugly urban architecture. Get involved in the planning process and refuse to settle. Get loud if you have to. It’s when a proposal – such as the current Purchase-Union Innovation District project – is soliciting community input that you need to say, “Hmm, maybe we can employ these resources in a better way…here’s an idea.” Otherwise, you get a squat, plain slab of a parking garage that does the talking for you.


Let there be light

Many of us have heard it again and again – mostly because many of us keep saying it again and again. Commercial and recreation areas throughout the city deserve to be properly lit for their close-ups.

In Philly, the revitalized neighborhoods of Old City and South Street shine bright. And, many of the small businesses that give these terrific neighborhoods flavor flip their own switches.

Look at the photo – and notice that when your local government leaves you in the dark, you don’t need to fumble for a flashlight. Throughout the city, we noticed simple strings of light – some of the Edison variety as pictured above and just as many clipped from a Christmas tree –  twisting above and around almost any perch. Cost-effective LED lights don’t break the bank and are worth the energy for safety reasons alone.


Keep it clean

This one breaks my heart but it needs to be said: New Bedford is a filthy city. Walking around Philly on a cold, wind-swept weekend, we were amazed at the lack of garbage flying around. Sadly, the same cannot be said of too much of New Bedford – which often resembles a dump.

We learned that – in spite of relatively few public trash receptacles – Philly keeps it clean by liberally employing street cleaners. While that may be out of reach, it would do our city good to redouble its Clean Sweep efforts. (Here’s the more-than-a-year out-of-date webpage for NB Operation Clean Sweep). Most wards get a once-a-year pick-up; the city needs a once-a-season sweep and maybe a vigorous public education campaign to help stop the toss.


Honor Thy Art

Decades ago, the street art of Isaiah Zagar almost ended up in the trash heap of urban revitalization and renewal. But the Philadelphia Magic Gardens (above) was born with the following Mission Statement: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) inspires creativity and community engagement by educating the public about folk, mosaic, and visionary art. PMG preserves, interprets, and provides access to Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic art environment and his public murals.”

New Bedford is often recognized for its artists and arts community – most recently with a 2017 Commonwealth Award for Best Creative Community. It’s nice PR – but some practical support and engagement would be even nicer.

We’ve seen some terrific street art come and go. Some of my favorite pieces were the downtown “Missing” milk cartons – which were taken down as a statement about the lack of civic support for the arts. As the cliche goes, you need to carefully tend your magic garden in order for it to grow. Let’s better engage and reward those tilling the fertile soil while – or before – we applaud their achievements for a headline.

And finally….

Sure, Philly is a much bigger city than New Bedford. And, like all cities, it’s seen its ups and downs. But looking for guidance anywhere to tweak some things out that need improvement can be an inspiration. We think we have all the ingredients necessary for New Bedford to be one of the best small cities in the nation with a funky, unique charm all its own. All it takes to move the ball forward is energy and enthusiasm. I’ll leave you with these words found on a Philly church – by another traveler from Massachusetts! It’s always good to remember that building a community is a process like any other and the journey is an end in itself if you keep in mind…


Steven Froias