Archive for February 2012

Philly: Ranked #1 for Culture

Each year, Travel + Leisure magazine conducts a survey called “America’s Favorites Cities,” and travelers rank 35 of the largest US cities in all types of categories like culture, style, quality of life, nightlife, and shopping.  The results of this survey?  In 2011, Philly ranked #1  … yes #1 …  for culture, beating out NYC by 0.01 of a point.  And there’s more! The magazine recently updated rankings on the rudest cities in the US, and we didn’t even place in the top 10.  At #11, our fair city has shown marked improvement from our #3 rank from last year.

So why the top billing on culture?  Here are just a few facts that support our cultural awesomeness:

  • Our Creative Vitality Index is 50% above the national benchmark.
  • There are 17,610 creative sector jobs in the city.
  • We received a top ranking for historical and cultural sites (by Travel+Leisure).

For more information, check out the Philadelphia Office for the Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy blog or the 2010 Creative Vitality update posted here.

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The Neighborhood Project 2: East Passyunk, South Philly

This afternoon three friends and I embarked on Neighborhood Exploration #2.   We headed to the East Passyunk neighborhood in South Philly, looking to explore this lively cultural district.  We enjoyed our afternoon of taking photos, meeting shop owners, and buying more than we originally expected (including 2 comic books, a graphic novel, a big bottle of beer, lunch at a lovely cafe, and a Jackson 5 album from 1984).

We met the proprietor of a great shop called Medium Bob’s Curiosity Shop, which carries everything from a collection of early 80′s R&B records to a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rollerskates to vintage menswear.  As I purchased a $4 Jackson 5 album, we discovered that the store is named after  the co-owner’s grandfather.  His name was Bob, and he wore a size medium.    Bob’s large collection of clothing and collectibles formed the initial supply for Medium Bob’s.  So clever.

We lunched at a local cafe, found a place to play comic book quizzo, discovered shops that sell items made by local artists, got 15% off a graphic novel for a foursquare check-in … and took photos to document the day.

Walking east from 13th to 9th, down East Passyunk Ave., there’s a striking juxtaposition of traditional and edgy, as two very different cultures have found a way to harmoniously coexist.  A National Geographic reporter described the neighborhood as “a traditionally Italian neighborhood that has been sort of taken over by the quote-unquote hipsters who have put their own stamp on it.”  A description that definitely resonates.  On a single block, you might find a used record store, an artist making one-of-a-kind bike accessories, a shop showcasing a lovely assortment of gleaming white First Communion dresses in its store window, and another selling Christian gifts and religious items.

East Passyunk is an interesting window into the complexities of urban development and how a neighborhood’s social fabric may shift over time.  A thriving artistic community brings a renewed economic vitality to this South Philly commercial corridor.  Is the corresponding cultural transition simply the natural evolution of a place?


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Let’s Show the World Philly’s Doing It Right

The Center for Design and Innovation at Temple University’s Fox School of Business held its annual inciteXchange conference at the Fox School’s Alter Hall yesterday, convening innovators, designers, and creative thinkers from around the globe.   As the first major business school to integrate design thinking into its MBA curriculum, this event served as a culmination of a week-long process of design inquiry, where students investigated new solutions to urban problems.

Each speaker presented for 20 minutes, inspiring listeners with stories of their innovative projects and challenging push our own boundaries of “what’s possible.”  In the afternoon session, Gary Steuer, the Chief Cultural Officer, City of Philadelphia, presented on the creative economy in Philadelphia.  He opened by referencing Dickens and saying that Philadelphia’s in the best of times and worst of times.    On one hand, we’re rife with cultural offerings, creative outlets, great restaurants, and a thriving city … yet on the other, we’re still facing some tough urban problems.  So, what role does the creative economy play in all of this.  Steuer offered some keen insights….

Arts and culture enterprise are part of the solution to our urban problems.   They help get people on the right path.  Students who receive arts education have higher grades, lower drop-out rates, and research shows, that they become better-engaged adults.  They vote more and are more likely to participate in civic organizations.  “It makes people better citizens,” he said.

Research suggests that the arts and culture organizations support neighborhood development, making cities safer, more interesting places to live and be.   The number of arts organization in Philly has increased over the past 10 years, and the number of jobs in the creative sector held steady over the past 5 years, at a time when unemployment rates have been rising.   For the first time in years, Philly’s population held steady (rather than declined).  This is all good news.

So what are Steuer’s ideas for the future?  He wants to show the world that Philly’s doing it right, and doing it right means lower crime, more jobs, engaged residents.   He suggested establishing an investment fund for Philly’s creative economy and providing tax credits to creative enterprises that employ grads from Philly’s universities.  Right now, his office is partnering with The Reinvestment Fund to develop an interactive map that shows arts activity, social data, and crime data and tells the story of Philly’s creative economy – a very practical way of showing the world what we are doing right here in Philly.

Steuer’s talk was inspirational, helpful, but perhaps focused on place-based improvements.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy to see Philly’s neighborhoods improving.  I’m happy to see grassroots “cultural clusters” (to use a term from Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert’s paper Culural Clusters: The Implications of Cultural Assets Agglomeration for Neighborhood Revitalization) bringing economic growth and change to our city.  I live (and have lived for almost 9 years) right in the middle of a burgeoning cultural cluster.  I love it.  But I also wonder, is there more that we can do?   How can we encourage creativity and possibility among the people here, those who’ve lost (or perhaps never really found) much hope for the future?  Is there a way to impact people AND our neighborhoods with the power of creativity?  This is a complex issue that perhaps I’ll muse on more in future postings, but thought I’d toss the question out there now.  There are definitely no easy answers to this, but I remain hopeful that some new solutions will emerge from the inquiry.

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Shining a Spotlight on the Fantastic: Thoughts on the Artist from Nikolai Fox

On any given day, you might find him snapping photos in a Philly park, playing the fiddle at an Old-Time jam, editing a film, painting a landscape, building a chicken coop, or cultivating a garden.  Drawing from the wilderness for inspiration, local artist Nikolai Fox endeavors to magnify the extraordinary contained within the seemingly ordinary. “There’s something interesting happening in every situation.”

On Saturday, February 11, Fox showcases a set of recent photographs at The Joseph Fox Bookshop in Center City, demonstrating to Philly his gift for capturing the extraordinary moments.  It’s open to the public, and runs from 4pm – 6pm.   See below for more information.

I recently caught-up with Nikolai to get his perspective on the role of the artist in society.

Tell us a little about your background.

NF – My background is in drawing, painting and photography.  I have also always been interested in the life sciences and spending time outside.  As a teenager I read books about and by John Muir and the myths that incorporate deities and characters which represent human perspectives on the wilderness.  I began to see the difference between the way that our culture projected the idea of wilderness and the reality of what was there.  There is an important parallel between the type of focused perceptual sensitivity that must be cultivated to feel at home in the wilderness and the kind of awareness you must have in order to create imagery that is relevant to specific conceptual and emotional goals.  What I gathered from these parallel studies is that art and wilderness have a very important relationship, both literally and metaphorically.

Where do you find artistic inspiration?

For most of my life I’ve been learning about perception and culture through the imagery that humanity has created as far back as we have record of. Simultaneously I have been fascinated by wilderness as a place to spend my time, a subject for imagery and a literal and insinuated theme in art.  The concept of wilderness and the perspectives that different disciplines bring to a culture’s relationship to it’s surroundings are key points of departure for my work.  The sun’s relationship to the earth creates so many different scenarios of light through the cycle of a twenty-four hour day, a month a season and in different regions.  This is my most consistent inspiration.  Even in the music I play and record I find different insinuations of pattern and temperature that relate directly to experiences I have had in different kinds of weather, landscape and light.  Drawing was the first endeavor that taught me how we summarize our experience into simplified concepts in order to communicate specific priorities.  We don’t summarize consciously, we are always doing it.  So much so that we actually believe that we are seeing what is all around us.  Drawing taught me how much we overlook so that we might function in our daily lives without being overwhelmed.  I didn’t realize these lessons when I was younger, but lately I have found texts that outline perspectives on myth, art and perception which support the instincts that drawing helped me develop when I was younger.

What motivates you to create?

NF – It is usually a very specific circumstance of light or weather, or a strong emotional trajectory that inspires me to set upon the task of embodying something intangible in a physical form.  When I am wondering, “Why do this?”  I think about the profound effect that art has had on me through out my life.  Reading about history, and the context and lifestyles of artists help me to figure out where I fit in.   The fantastic teachers I have had along the way communicated to me that art is a mantel that one adopts.  If I am hired to do professional work the goals are often outlined very clearly.  In these cases I feel lucky that I have cleared an available path to my inspiration.  Or I could say that there is always something interesting happening in any situation.  It is the artist’s job to use some kind of craft to shine the spot light on the fantastic thing that makes the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Do you think society values artistic contributions?  To what extent?

NF – A society’s value of art is very complicated to assess.  The interface of art, politics and everyday life is played out in different ways around the world and through history.  People who have influence understand that aesthetics are incredibly powerful.  Artists are often called upon to develop ways of communicating certain things in and between cultures.  A society will be very quick to claim an artist as one of their own if a certain level of recognition is reached by that artist.  I’m not sure that there is consistent opinion about the value of art in any culture.  Art can be very personal and ineffective outside of the small circle it is intended for.  Art can also be created in a way that allows people with all sorts of backgrounds, experience and education access to it’s fruits.  Art is a philosophical practice with a tangible physical record that is not necessarily linear or literal.  It often takes years after an artist’s death to figure out the relevance or potency of their work.Some of my most profound experiences with other artist’s work came after years of looking at it and not understanding.  Then one day it just hits.  This makes me think that works of art can stand as beacons along the journey of life.  We are not always ready to understand what we are experiencing.  This is a valuable lesson because it teaches us to be humble in regards to our opinions.  When the familiar erupts into the extraordinary in a way we didn’t expect, that is the real gift of Art.

How might society better value art?

NF – The value of artistic practice is obvious from an educational point of view, but there is the idea that making art is a time to express your self.  The completely subjective nature of this perspective encourages the elimination of of clear critical thinking from the artistic process.  This seems more like art therapy than the practice of Art to me.  If one wants to engage in the practice of Art then different types of crafts (ceramics, drawing, dance, etc.) must be studied until the basic principles of the practice become second nature to the student.  Then bigger questions can be addressed.  It is possible to teach craft in a very effective and empowering way.  It is also possible to give students a smoke screen of flashy and mysterious ideas and processes that make them feel deep while actually estranging them from the reality of what it takes to master a medium.  We are several generations into a culture that promotes the flashy and mysterious.  It’s an incredible dumbing down in the guise of intelligence.  The difference between what it meant to learn to draw 100 years ago and what it means now is embarrassing.  I think that a very clear curriculum starting as early as possible that develops the basic skills in a broad set of disciplines would lead to a generation of students who were ready by the age of twelve to begin focused study.  My point here, is that art is an essential part of a well rounded education.

Should the artist be concerned with social transformation?

NF -  Every member of society should be concerned with social transformation.  A healthy culture is like any other healthy organism.  It should be constantly learning from it’s mistakes and working toward a more effective, healthy and efficient system.  Agreeing on what that means is the hard part in a world with so many people such varying opinions about how to define healthy.  Artists are members of society just like everybody else, and so yes, I they should be concerned with the plight of the society that they live in.

How do you see art woven into the fabric of urban culture?   

I believe that there is currently misinterpretation of the role of the artist in culture.  Fame and fortune seem to be the calling cards of success.  Fame and fortune are achieved not through effective artistic study and practice, but through marketing. There is a lot of lore around the lifestyle of the artist and the magical relationship with one’s muse.  It is beneficial to marketing strategies to promote an individual and their work as if they have achieved some kind of connection with the deepest aspects of the human condition in an unexplainable way.  This kind of presentation separates the individual from the masses and encourages awe.  It’s like a Super Bowl half-time show.  All lights and budget, but in the end it is probably the worst performance the artist ever gave.  Putting value on glitz and glamor does not encourage understanding but intimidates people who could actually benefit from art.  The fashion industry is very honest about this, and so they are actually effective at exploring glamour as a concept.  Fashion puts it right on the table.  The thing is, that through artistic disciplines we are able to approach an understanding of the limits of our perceptual abilities and therefore define and understand our relationship to our surroundings more thoroughly.  This kind of understand couldn’t be more valuable to an individual, a family or a society.

Recent Photographs

Joseph Fox Bookshop
Saturday February 11, 2012, opening 4pm – 6pm
1724 Sansom Street
Music provided by the Belleville Quartet
Produced by Avi Loren Fox Photography


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The Neighborhood Project: Week One

Bounded by the Schuylkill River to the east, Baltimore avenue to the north, and the city limits to the west and south, Southwest Philadelphia is home to Bartram’s Garden, the Southwest Community Development Corporation, the African Cultural Alliance of North America, the Southwest Community Enrichment Center, a small local farm called Farm 51, and dozens of other active nonprofits, community groups, and associations.

This neighborhood offers so many creative opportunities to its residents, but more often than not, it seems to make the nightly news for its violence, drug activity, and economic struggle.   SW faces these issues, certainly; however, they don’t fully define the place or its people.    How can we re-frame our collective understanding of our neighborhoods, seeing them for their contributions and possibilities rather than their struggles?

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Must Be the Music – Filmmaking in Southwest Philly

A crowd of people circled the front steps of Chosen Generation Church on the 5200 block of Woodland Avenue – perhaps common on any given Sunday afternoon, but Monday at noon?  It had me curious, especially after I saw the microphones, headsets, and cameras.  “They’re filming a movie!”  I asked my husband to pull over, so I could check it out.

“Must Be the Music” is a murder mystery drama, set in the city of Philadelphia, and yes, they were filming a scene.   Co-producer Stevie G. Gordon, a SW Philly entrepreneur & business owner, has produced a number of films in Philly.  A report from indicates that actor/director Charles Dutton hopes that this film will lead to more Philly-based films, opening a whole realm of possibilities.

Associate Producer Dan Mitchell provided background on the film, including an impressive list of stars (listed below).   As I talked the focus of this blog – the influence and potential of Philly’s creative economy  - he mentioned that 80% of the film’s staff came from the surrounding neighborhood.  Pretty cool.

If you’ve always wanted to embark on a film career (or maybe work as a film extra), this may be your chance!  “Must Be the Music” needs extras and actors.  Check out this Facebook page for more info.

Must Be The Music Filming - 1

Details on “Must Be the Music”

Producers:  Stevie G. Gordon & Terrence Glasgow

Actors: Charles Dutton; Tasha Smith; Clifton Powell; Felicia “Snoop” Pearson; Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought from the Roots; Katrina; Pleasure P; Jadakiss; Catya Washington; Meek Mill


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The Neighborhood Project

Philly: A City of Neighborhoods

People often refer to Philadelphia as “The City of Neighborhoods.”  I’ve only been here since 2003, so still new to this town, really, but this description of Philly resonates with my experience here.  Each neighborhood seems to carry its own personality and pride, and each contributes something unique to the wider city and its history.  A few come to my mind:   the art galleries in Old City & along Frankford Avenue, the music scene in West Philly, the Mummers from South Philly, the diverse restaurants in Center City, the many, MANY festivals & events in our city’s diverse local parks, and the list goes on.

This got me thinking …

It would be cool to learn more about the neighborhoods of Philly.  Where are the clusters of creativity?  How do neighbors gather to improve their spaces?  What inspires each neighborhood?  Who are the small business owners and social entrepreneurs in these areas?

So I designed a project.  The Neighborhood Project.  Using the colorful map to the right as a guide, I’m hoping to visit each of Philly’s neighborhoods over the next 3 months, asking those questions I outlined above.   I’ll take some photos, talk to residents, and then write about my weekly adventures here.

Stay tuned for the first neighborhood.  I’m starting with my own, Southwest.

Also, would love suggestions on places to see, people to meet, questions to ask.   So, if you have a particular Philly passion that I should check out, comment below or email me,


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February 2012
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