Ariel Vázquez wasn’t raised in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia but for the past five years, the 31-year-old architecture researcher and urban planner has lived there, dedicating most of his time to understanding the history of the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and how the once bubbling manufacturing district has deteriorated into a cluster of what he calls “lost lots.”
“I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic but I’ve been here since 2008. Living in this area I’d seen a lot of empty lots. So I wanted to find out more about the condition my neighborhood was in. The more research I did the more questions I had,” Vázquez said.
In his research project, Lost Lots, Vázquez studied the history of vacant lots in the Fairhill neighborhood (bordering Kensington) and engaged residents in discussions about ways the spaces could be used to fuel integration and revive a sense of ownership among members of the community. Through a process of surveying a combination of photos, Geographical Information Systems maps, architectural drawings and panel discussions with the community, Vázquez was able to create a report detailing the current state of 150 vacant lots in Fairhill.
According to Vázquez 2,824 of the 30,000 or so vacant or decrepit lots in the city are located in the Fairhill neighborhood. When Vazquez looked at the history of the spaces, he found that the area had faced many changes, primarily due to a declining textile industry in the 1930s and 40s.
“I’ve done field surveys where I go to some of these parcels, I measure them, I take photographs of the specific conditions of the parcels and then I look at the historical succession of these parcels. I learned that a lot of these 150 parcels were originally industry. The textile industry was located in this corridor and there were a lot of buildings in this corridor that serviced the textile industries back in the 1940s and the 1930s. So at one point there was a boom in the economy in this section,” he said.
“A lot of people moved to these neighborhoods for opportunities in these industries for this kind of labor. When the industry started to disappear, the demographics changed and that has definitely taken a toll on this community.”
The project was presented in conjunction with the Claiming Places Laboratory (CP Lab), a collaborative of research exhibition that use art to get the community involved in conversations about claiming ownership of public spaces in a neighborhood or “placemaking.” For each cycle of the CP Lab, Damast selects research projects, in progress or completed, that coincide with the selected theme for the year. For several months CP Lab hosts a series of discussions and opens a space to the community to view and/or respond the research being presented.
According to the web site, this cycle of the CP Lab focused on “an investigation of the social, psychological and spatial characteristics of North Kensington’s prominently Latino Neighborhoods.”
Both Vázquez and CP Lab curator Rafael Damast agreed that the projects’ similar goals made for a logical partnership.
“I was approached by Rafael Damast and he asked if I wanted to do a project for the Claiming Places cycle. Both the idea of the empty lots plus a project about claiming places seemed very natural to merge. So I did the research and I started mapping out where the empty lots were,” he said.
“I chose Lost Lots for this cycle of CP Lab because I thought it was a good social engagement project that addresses issues in the community. It is somewhat about placemaking. It really caught my attention and it involves the people in thinking about what’s being done in their neighborhoods; instead of looking at it from a position of weakness to looking from a position of strength where the people could tell them what their ideas are and what they could do, what they want for their environment and let that speak for itself. I think this project does that,” Damast said.
Vázquez says he used the Taller Puertorriqueño location at 2721 North 5th Street to maintain a presence in the neighborhood throughout the research process and to allow members of the community to have a place to come and discuss their thoughts on the research.
Local artist Juan Bustamante, who attended one of the panel discussions, said he thinks the information presented will be helpful to the community.
"I went to the community talks that they did and it was a real interesting talk. My wife teaches in the neighborhood and at one point we were looking for lots in the area to purchase. I learned a lot about the vacant lots in the area," Bustamante said.
"I definitely like the fact that Rafael is trying to engage the community with different programs. I think if the project can continue and they can continue adding to it and the community can get involved, I think it would help."
Ultimately, Vázquez says his goal is not to tell the community what to do with spaces, but rather to get the conversation going about what they could do with the spaces.
“I didn’t want to create a project where I used my vision to reactivate a community; I wanted a project that the community could take to use their vision so that they could reactivate their community,” he said.
Vázquez’s first report can be viewed on claimingplaces.blogspot.com. He hopes to have two additional research reports posted to the site by the end of the month. The CP Lab was location will close on July 19, but Vázquez hopes the conversation will continue even beyond this research project.
“The research is not coming to an end. It could go on for one or two more years because I want to continue the research to maybe look at Kensington as a whole. I just want the research to help in some way so that at least there can be a consensus of what the community would want to see done with these spaces.”