Youth Visions for Art and Community
by Sharnae Mask, Alicia McGougan, Marc Riley, Miriam Tucker, and Michael Williams
"You think you know me, but you don't.
You think this is a lifeless place --
a place of absolute darkness --
where no light can shine, no voice can be heard, no dream can be fulfilled.
But you don't know me, or where I live.
This is my neighborhood..."

That's the opening script for the film we're working on as part of COSACOSA art at large, Inc.'s Youth Council and the Youth Visions for Stronger Neighborhoods program of National Learn and Serve America. We're all teens from North Philadelphia, and the film itself is about North Philly's Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood.

This community was once a great industrial center. People used to say you could get anywhere in the world from the corner of Broad Street and Erie Avenue – Paris, Rio, Hong Kong – and the goods and products made here traveled just as far. Vicks Vapo Rub, Burpee Seeds, Midvale Steel – so many famous businesses were centered here. It was a thriving community, and when you graduated from school you knew, if you wanted it, there was a job a waiting for you in the factories. There was security then -- ready jobs and safe streets. There was hope.

But as we look around now, the factory jobs have moved outside the city, or don’t exist anymore -- and people have no access to them. We're stuck here, surrounded by the empty shells of our industrial past. With no jobs, there’s poverty. With poverty, there’s abandoned housing, drugs, and violence. Most of our friends say, if they can survive these streets, if they can get an education, they will leave this place behind. It’s just a place for broken dreams.

Even the media calls North Philadelphia the Badlands. But we see something different: we don’t see a “hood,” we see a neighborhood – a community of people with common concerns. As one neighborhood elder recently told our youth group, in life you get what you expect. So, we'd rather think of North Philly as the Good Lands, the Peaceable Lands, the Promised Lands. We have a vision for our community -- a strong neighborhood united, healing, and growing. It's a vision we try to spread through our work with COSACOSA, by creating public art projects and new media projects, by holding town meetings and intergenerational dialogues, and through developing and showing our Visions of Community film project.

We talk a lot about what’s good about this community, and what it needs the most. With our friends and elders, we try to figure out what causes all the problems in the neighborhood, but the conversations often seem to go around in circles: Where did it start? Where does it end? Where do we come in? It seems the cause is bigger than just one source – not just the poverty, not just the crack, not just the violence, not just the broke-down houses. It makes it hard to get people in the neighborhood together to try and change things. People don’t believe they can have a say in what happens. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that the problems seem to overwhelming to handle. People feel helpless. But through our time working in the neighborhood with COSACOSA, we know even just one person can make a difference in the life of the community.

We've each got to become aware of our potential and gain confidence in our own abilities. We can’t just sit around and wait for someone else to perform a miracle for this neighborhood. We can’t wait for government to act or a developer to come in. We need to create our own jobs within this community, our own businesses. We don't need outsiders to give us jobs or determine our lifestyleor tell us how to develop the neighborhood. If they leave, like the industries before them, we have nothing. If they make all the decisions for us, we may be the ones that have to leave. Entrepreneurship in community partnership is our only hope. We have to do it ourselves to make our dreams come true. We have all the resources we need right here – libraries, community organizations, religious centers, hospitals, schools. And we have good people with shared values and visions, with generations of commitment to this community. All we need is determination, self-respect, and self-reliance.

Young people are the greatest resource this community has. We can bridge the generations: our grandparents and their values, our parents, and all the children after us. And we cannot rely on what the last generation has or hasn’t done. We have to follow our own instincts, our own hearts, our own dreams. We need to find that lost sense of hope this community once had and use it as a blueprint to construct a new promised land here in North Philadelphia. We've got to get the education that we all desire – and come back to this community. We’ve got to use what our generation knows about today's technologies. Then, we can create new industries so that people will not want to leave this community, and the people who moved away will want to return. Our vision for this community is that one day, people will proudly say, “I live in the Promised Lands – a neighborhood of young people who lived up to their promise. I live in Nicetown-Tioga!”

Young people of North Philadelphia, please join us, please roll up your sleeves. We have a lot of work in front of us. It’s a difficult journey ahead. We need the vision that only our generation can provide. But if we believe, we can make this community viable again, livable again. The world will come to this corner of Broad Street and Erie Avenue. And here, in Nicetown-Tioga and in all North Philadelphia neighborhoods, our voice will be heard, our light will shine through, our dreams will come true. We’ll be the brightest stars in this universe!

Sharnae Mask, Alicia McGougan, Marc Riley, Miriam Tucker, and Michael Williams are members of COSACOSA's Youth Council and the key writers for our Site and Sound project. This essay was based on their script for Visions of Community, a film about North Philadelphia's Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood including historical research, documentary footage, intergenerational interviews and theatrical vignettes.
Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).