Like Renovating a Church


Like Renovating a Church

A unique planning process preserves the unique artistic character of Graffiti Pier

About 30 years ago, graffiti writers and street artists began to flock to an abandoned, crumbling railroad coal bridge on the Delaware River waterfront. Located at the water’s edge in the Port Richmond section of the city, the site is part of Philadelphia’s industrial past. Over time, Graffiti Pier has grown from a conveniently isolated space for practicing graffiti tags on the side of concrete pillars to an internationally known and beloved center for an ever-changing gallery of street art.

In 2019 Conrail initiated a transfer of the property to public stewardship under the aegis of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC). The Foundation funded a conceptual design process for stabilizing the pier, preserving it in harmony with watershed cultivation, and ensuring that it retained its organic artistic character. We saw Graffiti Pier is a prime example of the importance of inclusive placemaking, and of how watershed protection and creative communities can be complementary goals.

Our funding was especially interested in supporting a public-engagement process that would ensure that the voices of the unique combination of stakeholders were heard and would shape the design, and on that basis the DRWC selected a team comprised of New York-based Studio Zewde and Philadelphia’s Amber Art and Design.

The team understood the importance of substantive stakeholder participation. Studio Zewde founder and head Sara Zewde explains, “engagement is often seen as separate from or parallel to design, but for us it's integral. The project of engagement is a design project.” Keir Johnston of Amber elaborates: “You can do it for the community or with them. You’re not setting the table. They have the table in the community and they’re already using it. It's about understanding the place and how they’re using it, and all of us coming together as a creative community.”

The process was particularly challenging in the case of Graffiti Pier because a key stakeholder group – graffiti writers – were initially reluctant to get involved, with good reason. “Graffiti writers and street artists have been criminalized for decades,” says Johnston. “Graffiti Pier has an almost mythological history, but it was all steeped in art, and underground art in particular, which was seen as frivolous or even illegal.”

To facilitate the artists’ involvement, the team relied on Amber’s local connections and employed informal methods: meet-ups at bars; anonymous calls and emails; off-the-record conversations with no recordings or photographs. Sometimes they met with intermediaries who represented and relayed the views of “folks who just wanted to remain anonymous.”

Once the lines of communication had been established, the next step was to discuss the need for the project. Recalls Zewde, “The first response we got was, why do this at all? Leave it the way it is! We shared modeling showing that in 25-30 years the space would be inundated by rising tides. And we talked about development pressures encroaching from the land side. Our message was that this is a change to mobilize investment towards saving this space.”

The team heard similar themes from neighborhood residents, who experience the site as more of a green space than an artistic-creation space. “A lot of what community members were saying intersected with what graffiti writers were saying,” says Zewde. “There was a common theme that a lot of nearby public spaces are super-programmed. And they all liked that Graffiti Pier is green, a more passive experience of walking and taking in nature. Neighbors had their own priorities – they stressed the importance of safety and accessibility. But they also said, ‘don’t make it look safe and accessible. Keep the aesthetic.’ So all the interests and goals really came together.”

The new design, which is slated to be completed in 2024, has struck many observers as looking nearly identical to the current site. Zewde explains that this is by design, and stems from the overwhelming desire of all stakeholders that the site retain its current character and feel. Zewde also notes that while the new design “appears to be a very light touch, it takes a lot of work to make it seem that way. A lot goes into making it structurally sound, transforming and preserving it for the future, while leaving it essentially intact. The work involves removing bulkheads and creating an ecosystem of graffiti and intertidal landscaping. It’s fascinating because both of these elements are consistent [with each other] – they’re about the Philadelphia concept of grit: dirt, rocks, and concrete.”

The onset of the COVID pandemic midway through the process led the consultants and stakeholders in unanticipated directions. With in-person meetings no longer possible, the team went old-school with a zine, Voices of Graffiti Pier, comprised of photos emailed in by graffiti writers, the latest design drawings, summary of engagement input, and histories of the pier and the community. It was, by all accounts, an engagement method unique in the history of Philadelphia waterfront planning, and the zine forms a durable testament to the work done to preserve the pier.

The DRWC believes the success of the engagement and design process was made possible by the Foundation’s early-stage funding of community-oriented planning. Karen Thompson, DRWC’s Director Planning, says, “You could imagine, and you could understand, a funder saying, ‘We don't really get what you're doing here. Why does this illegal use matter? Why can't you just clean it up and make it a park?’ The William Penn Foundation has set an example here, showing that it's worth thinking about public space in terms of meeting people where they are, maintaining authenticity, and nurturing creative space as a way to build community. This is how you ensure everyone across the city feels a sense of ownership over the waterfront.”

Johnston says the engagement experience bears out Thompson’s view: “There is something very healing in knowing that your voice is being heard, and that you are participating in something bigger than yourself that has a legacy to it. This space is like cherished ground for them. It’s like renovating a church.” When the project is complete, the chances are that Graffiti Pier will remain hallowed ground for years to come.

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