Apr 17, 2014

We the Weeds: Story Elicitation at the Rec Center

by: Julius Ferraro

Written by Julius Ferraro and Shari Hersh

Last Saturday, with its cloudless sky and spring warmth, may have been the most perfect day of the year thus far, and we spent it outside. At the Conestoga Rec Center in West Philadelphia, Mural Arts’ Environmental Justice Initiative, the Trust for Public Land, and artists We the Weeds painted, snacked on cookies, and talked horticulture with community members.

Environmental Justice is the initiative of Mural Arts dedicated to environmental art and sustainability-inspired projects. Like all Mural Arts projects, Environmental Justice Initiative invests considerable time and effort into making our work reflect, and relate to, the communities we work in.

The current project at The Conestoga Shoemaker Recreation Center, which entered planning stages in 2012 with Mural Arts and our partner Trust for Public Land, will renovate a beloved neighborhood rec center and playground in West Philly – across the street from another partner, Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus – and transform its outdoor property into a horticultural oasis with rain garden, sprayground, and community-inspired horticultural murals and etched pavement. Across the street, full basketball courts, a brand new playground and more water gardens will replace unused tennis courts and an empty field.

Trust for Public Land will be spearheading the renovations, while Mural Arts runs the community-driven art projects and leads art education programming with Shoemaker students, who also contribute to the art.

The rec center, as community members will attest, has long been a haven for local youths, and is a vital fixture in a community which very few other public services reach. Environmental Justice and our partners have been anxious to ensure that the program is driven by community interests, and that the agencies planning it receive significant feedback from local residents every step of the way.

So last year, in a series of meetings at the school, the community came together and decided on a theme that will be reflected in the new recreation center’s design: “Nurture community growth through learning about – and transforming – our environment and ourselves.” This is uniquely relevant to this project, where an important local environment will be transformed. Residents intend that this transformation will provide education on both the larger issues facing the environment, and the local plants which characterize our region, to those who use the new center, while also reflecting their lives and interests.

In an innovative method of collecting community input, artist group We the Weeds – Kaitlin Pomerantz, Zya Levy and Aislinn Pentecost-Farren – developed a questionnaire, specially designed to elicit stories about specific plants which interest community members, or which have a place in their family history – whether it’s because their mother kept it, their father farmed it, or they themselves use it for cooking or its curative properties. The results of this Story Elicitation will inspire the murals and etched pavement, uniquely interpreting the histories – and presents – of this neighborhood’s residents through an environmental lens.

Then these images, which will cover three of the four rec center walls and replace the current cracked blacktop, will reverberate across the center’s plaza, inspiring the choices of plants for the berm and rain garden.

All of this led up to Saturday (April 12)’s Story Elicitation event, when Environmental Justice, We the Weeds and the Trust for Public Land – with the help of some local moms and community leaders – set up tables in the soon-to-be-renovated rec center property, giving out potted plants and delicious herbal cookies, leading painting and planting activities, and asking for stories. An unexpectedly robust attendance was supplemented by additional door-to-door canvassing earlier in the week and throughout the day, drawing out those people who hadn’t heard about the event, or else couldn’t leave their homes. We the Weeds interviewed children, students, homeowners, and even local gardeners, finding the plant stories that we’re confident lie, sometimes half-forgotten, in everyone’s past.

Everything else – the cookies, the painting, the herb giveaway – were icing on the cake, our way of thanking the residents for coming out. The stories are the important part. They will feed the murals and images which will characterize the new space, and eventually inspire the plants which live in the rain garden, recycling and cleaning the community’s water.

Our five tables, offering treats, activities, and updated plans for the project, only took up a small corner of the rec center’s little plaza. While children and adults alike repotted plants and wrote intently about their favorite plants, on the blacktop around us the day-to-day lives of the community bustled. Parents looked on and chatted as their kids played on the playground – which passionate neighbors attest has long been a haven for youths – and on the other side of the lot, young men played basketball and enjoyed the 70 degree weather.

Last updated: Jun 3, 2020

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