Lily Yeh! Who IS she?
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An artist whose masterpiece is a neighborhood transformed in Philadelphia
Inner city communities face obstacles that often feel insurmountable: crime, poverty, pollution, crumbling urban fabric, social alienation, and other tragedies, which can crush the spirit of people living there. Despair becomes the biggest problem as everyone—inside the community and out—loses faith that things can actually change. What’s needed most is a way to crack through that sense of hopelessness.
Placemaking can play that role in hard-hit neighborhoods, by putting the emphasis on improving the place itself rather than viewing it as a morass of dysfunctions, each of which is addressed in the narrow terms of particular issues or professional fields. Focusing on place, which often begins small by planting flowers or cleaning up a littered street, proves to skeptical residents that positive change is possible. The energy generated by little victories builds momentum for major
That’s exactly what Lily Yeh did in North Philadelphia, which among all the struggling communities across the U.S. , stood out as one of the saddest when she began work there in 1989. She gave the neighborhood a new sense of possibility by utilizing the principles of Placemaking—a term not known to her and hardly ever used at that time—to launch a unique and far-reaching project.
Yeh would seem an unlikely candidate to make a difference in the inner city. She is not a social worker, urban planner, or economic development expert, not a wealthy philanthropist, political powerbroker, or business executive. She is an artist who grew up part of a socially prominent family in Taiwan (her father was a general in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army) and came to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts, eventually becoming an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts. The tough streets of Philly’s African-American ghetto must have felt as far from her background— Asia, Ivy League, art school—as the planet Neptune.
But as a student, she was inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, later, Nelson Mandela. In 1989, she had been in Beijing showing her paintings at the Central Institute of Fine Arts when she witnessed the brave and tragic protests at Tiananmen Square. That experience convinced her that being an artist, “is not just about making art…It is about delivering the vision one is given…and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.”
But she had already found the chance put this philosophy into practice. While touring a group of visiting Chinese artists around Philadelphia a few years earlier, she brought them to the North Philadelphia studio of dancer Arthur Hall, who asked her help in reviving a particularly grim stretch of the neighborhood outside. Yeh was shocked at the state of the streets—vacant lots strewn with rubble reminiscent of photographs of bombed-out cities at the end of World War II—and didn’t quite know where to start.
But she knew something had to be done. So she began gathering up the trash, which drew the attention of local kids wanting to know, she recalls, what “this crazy Chinese lady” was up to. Soon their parents were watching too, and Yeh realized she had some collaborators for what was to be the most important art project of her life. Soon everyone was involved in cleaning up the area, painting murals, and creating an “art park,” which became the pride of the community.
More than 20 years later, this area is still poor with high unemployment, but hope is returning thanks to the Village of Arts and Humanities. That’s what the small art park Yeh and a group of neighborhood kids started has grown into—a tangible symbol of renewal that covers more than 120 formerly vacant lots with murals, numerous sculpture gardens, mosaics, parks, community gardens, playgrounds, performance spaces, basketball courts, neighborhood art studios, and even a tree farm.
“The entire community seems to take part in the use of the spaces,” writes Kathleen McCarthy, who nominated the Village for PPS’s Great Public Spaces listings. “As we walked down the street, trying to find one of the parks, a man walking beside us directed us to the Ile Ife Park, and told us the history of it and the wonderful artist, Lily Yeh who started the park. He spoke with pride that this was a part of his community. We sat on the benches made of smashed tile and mirror, making wonderful curves and places to sit. Across from us, women sat and smiled, waved. Children ran over and asked us to hide them during a game of hide-and-seek…. I've never felt more welcomed in an unfamiliar place.”
Six buildings have been rehabbed into workspaces for Village projects with local residents getting on-the-job training in the construction trades. A daycare center has been established and abandoned housing refurbished. A new initiative, Shared Prosperity, has been founded to boost economic opportunities in North Philadelphia.
“All this happened under the radar of the City of Philadelphia,” writes Abby Scher in Yes magazine, “whose city planners and social workers were nowhere to be found in the neighborhood.”
Residents now look forward each year to their annual neighborhood theater festival, with plays written by young people drawing on their own experiences in North Philly. Several have these works have been performed as far away as Mexico and Iceland. Fall brings the Kujenga Pamoja festival (Sawhili for “together we build”), which culminates in an elaborate coming-of-age ritual for kids who have spent the summer preparing for the festival and working in job training programs.
“One of the most powerful things I learned,” Yeh told Yes magazine, “is that when you…transform your immediate environment, your life begins to change.”
Yeh’s observation was seconded by James “Big Man” Paxton, who gave up running drugs in favor of making mosaics for Village projects. He went on to teach hundreds of neighborhoods kids both the basic masonry skills and the creative dimension of making mosaics. “I was a lost soul in the community, disconnected from my family, looking for a way back to reality on the tail end of a 22-year drug addiction,” he remembered shortly before his death in 2005, and Yeh, “wrapped her arms around me and taught me to believe in myself.”
The Village of Art and Humanities has changed how residents of North Philadelphia think about their home. As the neighborhood blossomed with more public places where people could safely and pleasurably gather, its community spirit and positive sense of itself has grown. And that changes how others view the neighborhood today. Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, notes it, “changed the perception of the [wider] community from ‘there’s something wrong with these people’ to ‘there’s nothing wrong with these people’.”
Leaving the project in the hands of local people, Lily Yeh has now founded Barefoot Artists, Inc., which draws on the experience of the Village of Art and Humanities to help other struggling communities in the Congo, Kenya, the Republic of Georgia, China, Ecuador, Taiwan, Italy and the Ivory Coast. She has spent a lot of time in Rwanda, as a founder of the Rwanda Healing Project she works with children to restore peace, joy and beauty in communities ripped apart by the genocidal civil war.
Lily Yeh on Art and Placemaking
“When I see brokenness, poverty and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. We are creating an art form that comes from the heart and reflects the pain and sorrow of people’s lives. It also expresses joy, beauty and love. This process lays the foundation of building a genuine community in which people are reconnected with their families, sustained by meaningful work, nurtured by the care of each other and will together raise and educate their children. Then we witness social change in action.”
“I never dreamed that I could change things. Even now, it's not on my agenda to make people's lives better, to revolutionize the system. I don't see myself as a social activist. I am an artist. What I am about is sharing that sense of joy when I am creating with many people, with whoever wants to be a part of that process. It's not that I came to make their life better. People say, ‘You improve so many people. You make people happy.’ I say, ‘No, people make me happy.’ I need other people.”
“Around us there is all this unspeakable tragedy that everybody hides: Prison. Murder. Drugs. Abandonment. Men drifting away. All the things that society says are shameful. If people hold these in themselves, eventually they destroy a person. In life, there is the bright and the darkness. Our society hides the darkness. I say, no, let's understand what that is. So our joy is rooted in the depth of our tragedy and challenge and difficulty.”
“We are all dysfunctional; we are all separated from the whole. We are not more dysfunctional in the inner city. We are just more exposed. We can't even get through the day, with basic needs and so forth. But somehow, together, we make it whole. You see the mosaics? It's perfect: taking broken pieces, recreating and making something beautiful.”
The real impact of the Village is on all the individuals we come in contact with, particularly our children. They talk differently. They act differently. Because they went through an environment where they really mattered, they look at the future and they dream.
About Lily Yeh’s Work
“It has given me a great sense of pride to read in the newspapers and see on television people talking about my community in relation to beauty and hope rather than drugs and death.”
— The late James “Big Man” Maxton, a neighborhood resident whose life was transformed by his involvement with the organization
“She is willing to fight anyone for this neighborhood. She believes in me, and I believe in her.”
— John Ballard, a president of the Germantown & Lehigh Merchants Association and a store owner, working with The Village to strengthen the local commercial corridor
“It would not be an overstatement to say the opportunities she provides save lives.”
Philip Horn, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts
More Information on Lily Yeh and the Village of Arts and Humanities:
Village of Arts and Humanities
PPS’s Great Public Spaces