The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has received a $287,500 project grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support the development of a Chester Made Exploration Zone (CEZ). The Exploration Zone is a creative, cultural space in the heart of the historic arts and culture district that will bring people together to revitalize Chester. The CEZ will give community members the chance to engage with one another, learn more about the city’s cultural assets and history, rebuild their downtown and change perceptions about Chester.
“This grant is transformational,” said PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will inform dialogue—in our region and beyond—about the role of the humanities in inclusive, resident-driven creative placemaking. Wonderful things can happen when we come together and shape the character of a community around arts and cultural activities.”
The project will engage the Chester community in the collection, interpretation, and animation of underground history—both physically and metaphorically. Much of Chester’s history is literally underground, where newer foundations were built around walls of colonial basements to create labyrinthine passageways accessible today. For years the walkways served as storage areas; now local artists are retrieving artifacts and repurposing them. Chester’s rich history is also metaphorically underground—neither explored nor archived—and the Chester Made Exploration Zone aims to engage community members in that history.
Through hands-on learning with leading practitioners in history and creative placemaking, this project will continue work begun by artists and entrepreneurs in Chester’s downtown to map the city’s cultural assets and increase capacity for civic participation in community development. PHC will lead the Chester Made project along with the City of Chester, Widener University and The Artist Warehouse.
“This project builds on the work that we've been doing with Chester Made and our Boundaries and Bridges project with The Artist Warehouse,” said Sharon Meagher, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Widener University. “In the latter, we utilized arts and humanities methodologies and activities to build new collaborative partnerships and engage Chester residents.”
Widener University will contribute extensively to the project, with faculty leading efforts to engage the community in research and community-led programming. American History faculty will integrate the project into their courses; students will participate in archival research and oral histories and engage community residents in that work. English, Creative Writing, Theater, Anthropology and History faculty will work to develop community-based programming collaboratively with the greater Chester community to unearth Chester's buried historical, cultural, and arts heritage.
“The Chester Made Exploration Zone will provide an opportunity for youth to connect Chester’s historical and cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland.
Devon Walls of The Artist Warehouse will provide artistic direction for the project, leading and engaging Chester-based artists, including The Butcher Shop Rehab, which specializes in repurposing overlooked or discarded items.
Expanding on work in Chester funded by a recent National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant, project planning for the Chester Made Exploration Zone will begin this fall through a peer exchange with a Chicago-based group of artists. The project is expected to end in the early summer of 2018 with a community celebration of underground history.