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On the Ground: Philly Teepee pops up in Parkside

The teepee goes up

Local kids enjoy the teepee

A beautiful day in Parkside

On a bright Saturday earlier this fall, playground-goers at 41st and Cambridge in Parkside were curious. With oldies blasting, Philip Green and two neighborhood residents were setting up twenty-foot-high poles on the grass, erecting a teepee. The kids ran over. Could they help? 

Before long, the eager volunteers were carrying cushions inside the teepee, grownups from down the street were wandering over, and folks were introducing themselves, talking with friends new and old. 

These interactions are actually the goal of "Philly Teepee," a recurring pop-up placemaking project. The idea recently received funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as a K880 Emerging City Champion

"If Philly Teepee is one thing, it's a giant conversation starter," insists Green, the initiative's founder.

An Oregon native, Green came to Philly four years ago as an Americorps VISTA volunteer and stayed. He now serves as director of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project in Olney. After witnessing the city's rapid change over the past few years, Green conceived of the teepee not as performance art, but placemaking -- a strategically planned piece of "tactical urbanism" (inexpensive urban interventions that maximize the impact of a space).

"My ultimate goal is to attract a diverse array of people inside the teepee," he explains. "Then facilitate conversations that explore the nature and the changes that longterm residents and new residents have seen in the neighborhood."

Green researched, sewed and constructed the teepee himself. Everyone entering the installation receives a flyer acknowledging the history of mainstream cultural appropriation of Native American symbols and stating the intention of the structure: to use a teepee for its original purpose, as a community gathering space.

Last fall, the teepee began popping up unannounced in public spaces throughout the city, including FDR Park, Penn Treaty Park and Clark Park. With help from volunteers, Green gets the structure set up. Once the door flaps are opened, people start to stream in. 

While many of Green's past setups have been in large parks, the recent site was more neighborhood-oriented. 

"I've always loved Parkside and have wanted to do a Philly Teepee pitch there for quite a while," says Green. "It's a neighborhood that's economically depressed despite its relative proximity to Center City and University City. It's also a neighborhood edged by a World's Fair-themed park, a museum, a zoo and other grandiose institutions." 

Christopher Scott, a Parkside resident and friend of Green's, recommended a pocket park that had recently been transformed from a debris-filled lot into a well-kept community space. Scott, president of the nascent Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, reached out to elders of the block who oversee the park's maintenance, and enlisted neighbors to help with the setup. 

Green observed how important it was to have a community leader convey his mission to residents ahead of time, ensuring the installation wouldn't be seen as yet another symbol of gentrification. Neighbors knew from the start that the teepee was sanctioned by locals and open for everyone's enjoyment. 

Once set-up was complete, kids filled the teepee, settling on cushions on the ground, followed by grownups peeking in, most with a look of delight at seeing the inside of the structure. 

"If people have never been inside a teepee they get to experience that," muses Green. "The power of the teepee is that it does have this ancient space feeling to it...it's circular so you have to face people while you're speaking, the light coming in from the outside is just this beautiful ambient relaxing light, the air is calm inside...it's the perfect environment for conversations."

It certainly is. Kids laid down on the cushions and asked questions. What was that rope for? How was everything made? An impromptu storytelling session began, and Cheyenne Hare, a third grader at Blankenburg Elementary, found a piece of paper to write down her story about monsters. Some of the kids ran across the street to yell to neighbors on their porches: "We got a teepee! We got a teepee! Come in!"

Outside the structure, adults discussed the state of local public schools. Shawn Kelly, president of the Community Achievement Association, talked about how the park had changed with their assistance -- what used to be an eyesore is now a fenced area with a mural, playground space, painted benches, rosebushes and a grassy lawn where the kids say they "do gymnastics." Kelly's community partner, the East Parkside Residents Association, was also represented at the teepee: Sonja Pough, the program's summer lunch coordinator, stopped by, welcoming everyone with hugs and smiles. 

James Bill, a recent transplant from Boston, checked out the teepee, too, and contributed a newcomer's perspective on Philly's neighborhoods: "From the outside it's totally gritty and not all that welcoming," yet in his first two weeks dozens of people have said to him, "Welcome to Philadelphia." He laughed, "That would never happen in Boston!" 

According to Green, most of his pop-ups follow the same pattern. People are curious about the teepee and start asking questions about it. Then, "conversations about the teepee become conversations about the park that it's in, and conversations about the park become conversations about the neighborhood...These conversations about the neighborhood are at the very core of Philly Teepee's community building mission. The teepee brings in residents of every income bracket, ethnicity, race, age, education level and socioeconomic status into the same space, where they can sit across from each other and discuss their neighborhood: how it's changed, how it's stayed the same, and what it means for them." 

In a rapidly-changing Philadelphia, Green sees it as vital to get -- and keep -- people talking. 

"A lot of times in neighborhoods we're all sharing the same space and we're all boarding the same bus but we're never actually having conversations," he argues. "The conversations inside the teepee "help residents humanize each other, recognize their common ground and forge shared aspirations for the neighborhood." 

So, what did the Parkside teepee's visitors think? 

Khyree Turner, a first grader at Blankenburg Elementary, says with satisfaction, "I never been in a teepee. It's kinda awesome." 

Bill, our Boston transplant, looked around and observed, "Philly's such a melting pot...It's constantly swirling." 

In the midst of the swirl, the teepee is there, inviting neighbors in. 

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).

On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

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