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Life on the block: Two exhibitions show us the best of city life

Posted on 13 October 2015 by Mike Lyons

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Well-known West Philly based photographer Lori Waselchuk has spent the last couple of years hanging out with block captains, attending block parties and photographing the people that hold streets and neighborhoods together.

You can get an intimate look at the results of that work at two exhibitions that open this Friday. Block Party is an exhibition of Waselchuk’s newest work connected with her multimedia project Them That Do.

Lisa Barkley, Haddington Homes, 5500 Vine Street

West Philly block captain Lisa Barkley (Photo by Lori Waselchuk).

For Windowishes, Waselchuk teamed up with six block captains for an installation in the storefront display windows on the west side of South 40th Street between Chestnut and Ludlow. Waselchuk and her collaborators – block leaders and captains Lisa Barkely, Mary Campbell, Carol Dubie, Freda Egnal, Elizabeth Waring, and Renée McBride-Williams – installed “a small environment in each of the bay windows inspired by their community stewardship and neighborhood histories,” according to Waselchuk.

The result is seven stand-alone exhibits that invite us into the life of a single block. For example, the children of Dubie’s block on South 46th Street made flags for her display, “Legends of the Block.” Teens from Waring’s block of Powelton Avenue helped design and construct a four-foot tree for her display, “Our Trees.”

A whole bunch of community organizations came together for this one. Local cabinet maker and carpenter Gordon Richardson of Oberholtzer Custom Cabinetry donated labor, materials and expertise. Community organizations such as the University City Arts League and the Spruce Hill Community Association also supported the project.

So come have a look and celebrate the launch of both exhibits on Friday, Oct. 16 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the AIRSpace Gallery (4007 Chestnut St.).

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Block captains wanted to bring a piece of their street to 40th St. storefront

Posted on 27 July 2015 by Mike Lyons

The  windows along 40th Street that will house "Windowwishes."

The windows along 40th Street that will house “Windowwishes.” Photo from the ThemThatDo website.

Local photographer and artist Lori Waselchuk is looking for some block captains to help her create a window installation for vacant storefront windows along 40th Street.

Entitled “Windowishes,” the street exhibit will include everything from video and archival photographs to neighborhood objects and crafts and will coincide with the Center for Emerging and Visual Artists’ Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST) on Oct. 17 and 18. The installation will be in those seven storefront windows on the west side of 40th Street between Chestnut and Ludlow.

Waselchuk, who has shared block captain’s stories in the multimedia project ThemThatDo, said that the planning for the exhibition will begin in August. So if you are a block captain or know one who is interested in showing the community the vitality, history and distinctiveness of your block, go to the project website here and sign up.

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‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Leonia Johnson, 200 South Millick Street

Posted on 05 February 2014 by WestPhillyLocal.com

This is the next in the series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Make sure to go to Them That Do for more photos, videos and other information and updates.

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Leonia Johnson, 200 S. Millick Street

Leonia Johnson is a young block captain on the 200 block of S. Millick Street in West Philadelphia. Photo by Lori Waselchuk

 

Last March, Leonia Johnson stood up at the Cobbs Creek Block Captain Association’s monthly meeting to speak about the murder of her neighbor and friend, Gregory “Chop” Scott, two weeks earlier. Scott had been shot seven times, at point blank, in front of his home on South Millick Street. When Johnson described cleaning the bloody crime scene after the police finished their work, the meeting room filled with moans. Her listeners, too, knew such pain.

“Chop was old school,” she said. Perhaps she wanted her audience to know that for her, age meant wisdom and experience. She was the youngest member of the association by decades.

Johnson described how Scott helped her keep the block safe. “If he saw young people selling drugs, Chop would ask them to move on and they would. They might not have liked what he was saying, but they respected him.”

Her message was both a memorial and a call for unity. She said that the people who lived on the 200 block of S. Millick had “prayed together and declared as a block that this will not make us weaker.”

She knew that several members of the association also had experienced violent crime on their watch. So she said: “I say all this to you so that you do not give up your hope… and so that you do not become complacent.”

Johnson’s block has a history of unity, not violence. “We are like a family,” she told me during a recent interview. Then, after thinking about her words, she smiled to herself and added, “And we can be quite dysfunctional at times.”

Block captains have been a steady influence on S. Millick. “We’ve never not had one,” said Johnson.

“When I was young, my mother was block captain. I watched the respect my mother got.” Johnson was a junior block captain, too. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to have a title,” she recalled.

After she graduated from college, Johnson got a job as a youth counselor at the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, then moved into her mother’s home. Johnson, who now is 34, became the block captain eight years ago, after the previous captain moved away.

Being a young block captain has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is Johnson’s ability to relate to youth. She once interrupted a dice game on a porch and a boy came up to her afterward to complain that he lost money because of her. “I told him ‘Well, you owe me thirty thousand dollars!’ and when he said ‘What?’ I said, ‘When I see ya’ll gambling, all I think about is how my property value is dropping thirty thousand!’”

Johnson understands why there are so few young block captains. “Very few 30-40 year-olds do community service,” she says. “They are trying to establish themselves and they don’t think about the next generation.”

She had her own doubts too, she said. “I wondered how I’d be able to be effective and still have a life.”

Johnson is concerned that the block captains with whom she works are getting old and there are no volunteers to take over. If the older block captains simply fade away, “we won’t benefit from their knowledge,” she worries.

Johnson has built friendships with the elder block captains and feels responsibility to assist them when she can. It’s a lot to take on. “Somebody needs to help me bridge the gap!”

Lori Waselchuk

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‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Freda Egnal, 4800 Osage Avenue

Posted on 29 January 2014 by WestPhillyLocal.com

Editor’s Note: This is the latest in the series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Make sure to go to Them That Do for more photos, videos and other information and updates.

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Freda Egnal, block captain for 43 years on the 4800 block of Osage Avenue.

Freda Egnal, block captain for 43 years on the 4800 block of Osage Avenue. (Photo by Lori Waselchuk)

“Stop Bitching, Start A Revolution,” reads the Zendik Farm bumper sticker on the Prius parallel-parked between handicap parking signs. The sign poles are decorated with beads, fabric, earrings and ribbons. This is Freda Egnal’s spot.

Egnal is a funky lady. She dyes flashes of blue, green, yellow and purple into her white hair to match the rainbow rims of her glasses. She covers the walls of her front-porch office with posters and buttons shouting slogans like HOUSES NOT HIGHWAYS (1970’s) or REFORM HEALTHCARE NOW! (2000’s) – most are from community campaigns and projects that she has worked on.

When I met Egnal a year ago, she had been a block captain for over 40 years. A few months ago she passed on that position to a young couple who volunteered. But she hasn’t been able to rewire her captain habits. “I still send out e-mails,” she says. The neighbors can’t break their familiar patterns either, Egnal says. “People still come to me with small problems and I try to help them.”

Egnal speaks proudly about her block. “We became organized in the 1970s and we made a big effort of looking out for each other.” She says never felt unsafe and remembers feeling “offended when Penn told their students that it wasn’t safe west of 40th Street.”

Her fondest memories from her block-captain days are the First Friday Block Club meetings, in which block business was mixed with socials. “We had a lot of neighbors make presentations about their own areas of expertise.” Egnal remembers. “And of course we would always eat.”

After graduating from the UPenn School of Social Work in the late ‘60s, Egnal moved into the home on Osage Street with her partner, Herbert Bickford, and worked for the city of Philadelphia as a community and labor organizer.

As a civil servant, Egnal was ‘hatched’ – the term used to describe the federal Hatch Act that forbids government employees to work in party politics. Now retired, Egnal is free to dedicate her time to a lifelong passion for politics. She represents her neighborhood division on the Democratic Party Committee. Egnal says it’s “the lowest rung on the party apparatus.”

But her humble rank in the Democratic Party doesn’t keep her from still believing in change. “I think capitalism clearly has failed. I still think we need a revolution.”

Lori Waselchuk

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‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Jeff Lutzner, 4900 Cedar Avenue

Posted on 15 January 2014 by WestPhillyLocal.com

Editor’s Note: This is the latest in the series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Make sure to go to Them That Do for more photos, videos and other information and updates.

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Jeff Lutzner has 23 years experience as the block captain of 4900 Cedar Avenue in Philadelphia. Photo by Lori Waselchuk

 

A few years back block captain Jeff Lutzer and others on the 4900 block of Cedar Avenue had an idea to get the city to fill more than 30 potholes on their street. For a year he tried unsuccessfully to get the street repaired. Then he and his neighbors resorted to protest in the spirit of guerrilla gardeners. On a citywide cleanup day, they filled the potholes with potting soil and planted palettes of marigold and impatience flowers into them.

“They were only there for a day,” says Lutzner, but with the help of coverage in the University City Review, the flowers bore fruit. It took a few months, but the city eventually paved over the potholes.

Humor and persistence are useful qualities for any block captain. Lutzner, who has been in the post for 23 years, has needed plenty of humor and persistence. It’s been smooth sailing, but he would consider handing over the title to the next generation.

If you live on the 4900 block of Cedar Avenue and are interested, Lutzner could share how his laid-back approach helped him reduce the number of hours he spends on block duties. He concentrates on the basics: cleanups and safety.

If the potential candidate has a family, he or she might want to reinstate annual block parties. “When we moved here, we had lots of kids,” Lutzner says. As a father of two, Lutzner organized block parties and street games and remembers a street full of children.

Lately, though, there isn’t much interest in jumping castles. The block’s demographics have changed. “The challenge now is staying connected to the ever-changing tenants in rental units.”

Working from home is a plus for a block captain aspirant. Lutzner runs his business, Caoba Doors, from home, so he has kept an eye on things without too much effort.  He is also visible and available. “When there is a major issue, people come to me,” he says.

A green thumb wouldn’t hurt either, just in case the city gets behind in filling potholes again.

Lori Waselchuk

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‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Rebecca Metraux Canna, 4600 Hazel Avenue

Posted on 08 January 2014 by WestPhillyLocal.com

Editor’s Note: West Philly Local is proud to present the eighth in a series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Go to Them That Do for more information, updates and additional photos.

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Rebecca Metraux Canna holds her seven-month-old daughter Lorelei in their home. Canna is the block captain for the 4600s of Hazel Avenue in Philadelphia PA. Photo by Lori Waselchuk

 

They call themselves the Hazelnuts. And Rebecca Metraux Canna is their captain.

Canna, soft spoken with a friendly smile, took over as block captain four years ago. “I love to plan events. I love West Philly. I thought I could contribute.”

The Hazelnuts love to party. They apply for five summer block party permits at a time. For more than a quarter of a century they have been hosting an annual progressive dinner party, during which 30 or so Hazelnuts eat a three-course potluck dinner, each course hosted by a different household. There are house concerts with famous musicians and impromptu happy hours on the large front porches of the nearly identical Edwardian twin homes. On Halloween, the Hazelnuts decorate their homes and treat generously.

For all the events and the business of the block, Canna uses block’s listserv and Facebook page to communicate. Canna is a psychologist; she likes to create surveys to understand how folks feel about things. When the block was considering permit parking, Canna used online surveys to get a consensus. “It was very contentious and took three votes to get it approved,” recalls Richard Olaya, a Hazelnut, a former Hazelnut captain, and a father of two.

Canna continues to think of new ways to be social. One Sunday this month, she is hosting a Sunday coffee and dessert get-together. “It might get people out of their houses during the winter,” she says.

The children party, too, in their own way. There are skateboarders and four-square games. The Manhunt tag games spill over into other blocks. Olaya took an informal census recently (surveys may be another Hazelnut tradition) and counted 36 kids living on the block. Some of the annual block parties are less structured so the kids can play freely on the blocked-off street.

Canna hopes to keep a kid-friendly culture on Hazel Avenue for her seven-month-old daughter, Lorelei. Already, she has been enlisting Lorelie to help with her captain duties. “She’s a good ice-breaker. I take her when I go around collecting the [$10] block fees. I don’t know everyone on the block, so Lorelie makes my introductions easier.”

Lori Waselchuk

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