At the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, we believe that the humanities are crucial to civic life and that people's stories are a powerful foundation for civic engagement. This is certainly the case with Chester Made, a humanities-based initiative to recognize and promote arts and culture in Chester, Pennsylvania, and to harness their power as a force for community revitalization.
What distinguishes Chester Made within the context of current trends in creative placemaking is that the community and local artists have ownership of the process. Instead of taking a typical top-down approach steered by urban planning and outside curators, this initiative seeks to build the capacity of local leaders, organizations, and artists and sustain their efforts beyond the scope of the project. That ensures that the authors of this story are the residents of Chester themselves.
Chester is the oldest city in Pennsylvania, the site of William Penn’s landing. Historically known for its industries, the slogan “What Chester Makes, Makes Chester” continues to define the ethos and vitality of the community. Chester has always been the birthplace of greatness, as it has been home to jazz legends, music superstars, and cultural icons like Ethel Waters, Avery Sunshine, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In recent years this hardscrabble riverfront city of nearly 35,000 has made headlines, but typically not for its industries or its hometown stars. Chester is rated as the second most violent city in the nation, right behind Camden, New Jersey, its neighbor across the Delaware River. Most businesses in downtown Chester left long ago, and public schools are controlled by the state. The city is one of the poorest in Pennsylvania, with a median household income of $26,000.
But that isn't the whole story. Renewal has begun in Chester. A supermarket has opened (the first in more than 10 years), and a mile-long stretch celebrating arts and culture—the Chester Cultural Corridor—has been proposed between Chester City Hall and Widener University. Visit the 500 block of Chester’s Avenue of the States today, and if you look beyond the numerous vacant buildings and boarded-up windows, you’ll see a vibrant movement led by Chester artists and entrepreneurs to revitalize and beautify the city with arts and culture.
Storytelling, Improvisation, and Theater
In 2015 a group of Chester artists and educators known as the Chester Made Ensemble held eight story gatherings throughout the community. Lisa Jo Epstein of Just Act (formerly Gas & Electric Arts) collaborated with Don Newton's Chester Arts Alive to create the ensemble, which used John O’Neal’s story circle process to gather data. The story-gathering sessions attracted more than 350 residents and identified nearly 200 Chester Made Champions—people, events, heritage sites, organizations, facilities, and businesses that help shape the creative soul of the community.
Branding and Pop-Up Arts Events
What came through clearly and vibrantly in residents’ stories is that Chester truly has its own brand. When asked what they envisioned for a proposed arts and culture district in their downtown, residents said it's got to be "Chester Made" through and through.
To capture the essence and power of the brand, Devon Walls, owner of The Artist Warehouse, designed a Chester Made logo, and he also began to curate events that celebrated Chester Made arts and culture. A Made in Chester Art and Furniture Show attracted hundreds to a local gallery to see art made locally past and present. Widener University partnered with Open Mike’s Internet Cafe to launch a dinner theater series. And residents celebrated Chester Made arts, culture, and downtown businesses with a first-ever Arts Loop.
As final output, Chester’s Planning Department, along with faculty and students at Widener University, took the data gathered through stories in Chester and created a cultural assets map, accessible online through the City of Chester website. The map includes cultural organizations, facilities, events, and heritage sites.
Moving forward Chester Made partners hope the information gathered will be integrated into city projects and land use planning in a number of ways, including:
- Awareness and marketing: promoting culture for residents and visitors
- Economic development: facilitating entrepreneurial investment in creative cultural industries
- Planning and policy: informing decision-making related to land use and design
- Networks and collaboration: facilitating partnerships with cultural groups and identifying opportunities to maximize assets
In July 2015 the Chester Made Ensemble theatrically presented the entire project and the final map to Chester City Council. All in all, more than 1,500 people participated in Chester Made. This project engaged people who do not typically participate in public processes and made them feel heard and validated. By putting the personal into the theatrical, the community was able to re-see their own strengths.
A report from Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, found that Chester Made delivered on its discovery and demonstration intents in many ways:
- Expanded who participates in public process.
- Revealed a spectrum of cultural assets that had not been fully known or acknowledged.
- Revealed that the impact of arts and culture on Chester and its people is profound and multidimensional.
- Generated a palpable sense of hope and pride among participants.
- Made important connections, improving existing relationships and building new relationships within and across sectors, catalyzing new collaborations, and developing leadership in the community for future efforts.
- Generated much learning about what it takes to plan and implement an arts-based and humanities-informed approach to civic planning and community building.
Read the executive summary based on the full report by Pam Korza and Barbara Schaffer Bacon of Animating Democracy:
In 2016 PHC received two major grants to move Chester Made into its next phase, from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. All funds are supporting the development of a Chester Made Exploration Zone in the 500 block of Avenue of the States. The zone will give community members the chance to engage with one another, learn more about the city’s cultural assets and history, and continue to rebuild their downtown and change perceptions about Chester.
Along with the Philadelphia-based organization Public Workshop, Chester’s Artist Warehouse is working with residents to temporarily animate vacant spaces through a pop-up builder’s workshop and other outdoor public art activities, while Widener faculty are leading efforts with the community in the collection, interpretation, and animation of community history.