The Village Neighborhood:

January 5, 2010

Angelic Humanity Manifest

The Village Neighborhood -Working together

The Village Neighborhood -Working together

“Truth reaches the mind most easily by the senses.”  -Father Paul Dobberstein

Guardian Angel Park-Before

Guardian Angel Park-Before

Years ago I found myself a newly married father at the ripe old age of 19. Scared, but determined to provide for my new family, I dropped out of college and began my journey into “the real world.” A friend of the family offered me a job through a laborers union in Philadelphia. A dead end job with what seemed like great pay at the time. I went from frolicking the tree laden campus of the University of Delaware to literally digging holes in the trash laden streets of Philly. Growing up in the shadow of Philadelphia, I had been to the city’s tourist attractions many times, but with this experience I got a first hand look at how depraved many parts of the city were. Houses crumbled around our work sites, discarded cars were strewn throughout the city, and bullet holes often decorated the buildings that managed to remain standing. The company I worked for had a contract with the city to dig up all the rotting gas and oil tanks buried in old gas stations and maintenance shops and replace them with environmentally safe tanks. I was on the crew that got to dig them out and dig up the contaminated soil. It was lovely work. In less than six months the company downsized and I welcomed the day I got laid off. I left without any desire to return to Philadelphia; it was years before I even returned as a tourist. After working construction for a few more years, I decided to try college again, so I enrolled at UD once again as a part-time student. I ended up taking a one-time-offered Art History class titled “American Art and the Religious Imagination.” It is easily one of the best classes I have ever taken. The grad student who was in complete creative control taught with passion, and he even required us to take field trips. One of the places we visited in North Philly was called “The Village Neighborhood.” It began in 1986 as a community outreach by Lily Yeh to clean up the park of a run down neighborhood and to use the materials of the city to create art that could bring a little beauty and color into an otherwise drab existence. Since then the project has grown throughout 260 blocks of the neighborhood. As I walked the streets of The Village Neighborhood, I was touched by more than the interesting urban artwork. I saw a people who were small in number developing a way that could transform a community with no hope to one that could produce a significant change in the lives of a significant amount of people. 

Guardian Angel Park -Angels

Guardian Angel Park -Angels

As we drove through the poverty stricken streets, I noticed most of the empty lots still had debris from the demolished buildings and a lot of trash built up from what some members of the community left lying around. Everything was rundown, falling apart, littered and graffitied. Kids played right on the streets with the trash and decaying architecture.  Some graffiti was more art rather than just tagging; I have always been intrigued by the amount of quality murals that decorate the various areas of Philadelphia. Every time we passed an interesting mural, I expected it to be the beginning of the Village; yet as we turned by Guardian Angel Park, I immediate realized why this was considered to be a sacred place. Two tall angels looming over the community painted on the side of a house send a definite message to onlookers that this place is protected. Whether the protection is from a deity or simple the strength of the community depends upon your faith, but a deeper look into these few blocks reveals more than fancy artwork and few cleaned up lots. The Guardian Angels overlook concrete children and animals playing beneath them. Each angel bears a sword and cradles a child to suggest that true safety needs more than outward strength, but also the intimacy and love that brings inward security and confidence. The abstract colors and shapes of the concrete creations are symbolic of the abstract and colorful life in the inner-city, and the concept of using tiles, bricks and concrete is brilliant for an area where vandalism and decay have been prevalent. As special and sacred as this place is, it does not feel at all out of place in the city. There is a comfortable flow from the surrounding city blocks to where the streets seem to grow into angels and children and concrete arms reaching up for joy in a dance of colored tiles with a backdrop of urban mysticism. 

Angel Alley

Angel Alley

Angel Alley is just as intriguing as the park. With warrior angels lined up from one end to the other, one can stroll down this alley with confidence. In the middle of the angels is a figure who must represent a deity, at least a man in charge, or perhaps he represents the community being protected. Of the angels that he stands between, one holds a book which might represent scripture, or it could symbolize the freedom that gaining an education can bring. The other holds a baby, perhaps a symbol of Christ, or just the comforting thought of having security in faith. The Village Neighborhood seeks to meld differences of religion together in order to achieve a sense of common unity. The wall opposite the angels displays a pattern of tiled squares checker-boarding triangles with smiling faces. They give the pedestrian a sense of welcome.

Meditation Park -Tree of Life

Meditation Park -Tree of Life

Meditation Park has a slightly different look with its stone ground and only one large circle seating place. Its surrounding walls only bear one image of the Tree of Life. In the Christian tradition the Tree of Life represents innocence, purity and eternity. However, as one sits and meditates in this surrounding area, it is easy to get the impression that this Tree not only represents new spiritual life, but also the growing and budding life of the community from the ruins of an at-risk neighborhood. That is exactly what the combination of artists, teachers, and community members have done here. In addition to the artsy remodeling of the exterior of the buildings and empty lots, they have also repaired abandoned buildings and transformed them into art and education centers. Joseph Joubert, a 19th century French philosopher, said, “He who has imagination without learning has wings and no feet.” The Village takes kids off the streets and offers them the foundation they need to help them accomplish whatever their dreams may be.

Ile Ife Park

Ile Ife Park

Ile Ife Park, however, is my favorite place in the community. The first to be conceived and created by Yeh, Ile Ife Park has a path through beautiful gardens, concrete chairs and couches (which are actually comfortable to sit in), and a group of concrete arms growing up from the ground and reaching into the sky. This stage is set against a mural displaying a large bird in flight signaling to anyone in the community who gathers there that they also can fly. I have learned that a key difference in those who are poverty-minded and prosperous-minded is the later like to surround themselves with objects of beauty and art (Eberle 104). Art and nature inspire the human soul to be creative and productive. I have also read about a doctor who worked in Harlem and lamented that the poor he served just needed something to break the cycle of poverty; he observed that even if he ended up on the street with no money and no housing, he still had his positive upbringing and education to enable him to get up again. Lily Yeh not only brought a community together to create external beauty, but she has started a movement that brings education and inspiration to the impoverished and gives them the opportunity to take responsibility for their neighborhood and their own lives as they learn and grow in confidence and self-esteem. This movement has grown from The Village Neighborhood in North Philly into the organization Barefoot Artists which replicates the success of The Village to impoverished communities all over the world.

Guardian Angel Park -Concrete Kids

Guardian Angel Park -Concrete Kids

Being guarded by angels, The Village Neighbor-hood truly is a sacred place. Does sacredness rest in the traditions of objects and ancient cathedrals and temples, or is it a matter of the heart? Is sacredness religion? If so, my religion teaches that, “a pure and faultless religion in the sight of God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in trouble” (James 1:27, Revised English Bible). When he was criticized for hanging out with people considered profane, Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick; I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17, Revised English Bible). Whatever your faith is, let’s break out of our traditions and start healing people. There might not be a program as interesting as The Village Neighborhood in your community, but there is always something you can do to contribute and help those who are in need. Perhaps you are called to start something on your own. My experience at The Village planted a seed in me, and eventually I got involved in my own church’s outreach to the projects of Wilmington, DE. Before our class left for the day, I was able to chat with a few kids who were finishing up pottery projects. They all said they loved their classes “except for the cleaning up.” These kids now have the experience of owning a sense of creativity and accomplishment; they have more tools to help them move past the limited expectations of poverty level children. As they grow older and move on with life, I’m sure they will each get a sense of awe and sacredness in their hearts when they think of their experience in The Village Neighborhood.

Lily Yeh -1986

Lily Yeh -1986

For more information check out the following websites:

                http://www.villagearts.org/index.htm

http://www.barefootartists.org/index.html

  • Eberle, Harold R. Developing a Prosperous Soul, v.1. Winepress Publishing. Yakima: 1997.
  • All scripture references are from The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha.   
  • All pictures are from barefootartists.org.

Peter L Richardson
Spring 1999, revised Winter 2009

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4 Responses to “The Village Neighborhood:”

  1. bditws Says:

    Nice. There are so many amazing organizations out there.Digging holes is awesome! I’m a self employed remodel contractor(writing has earned me $100 so far) and I end up doing a lot of digging and crawling through nasty places. That’s what you get for being a writer even after six years of school.

  2. peterrock12 Says:

    I gotta admit; after teaching for six years, I might be ready to go back to digging holes! I moved on to more skilled work eventually, but I definately don’t have the ability to run my own business. I do miss the physical ache at the end of the day, and not having to exercise on my own time!

  3. bditws Says:

    On digging.

    In your twenties=exercise.
    In your thirties=back ache.
    In your forties=have your kid do it.


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