By using recycled road signs to beautify a chain link fence, this small Pennsylvania town shows how a low-cost, high-impact project can bring the college and the local community together and create a sense of place.
Too often these days, you hear about frictions between colleges and the communities they’re located in. But my visit to Allegheny College in the northwestern Pennsylvania city of Meadville (population 13,253) proved this doesn’t have to be the case. Indeed, the relationship between Meadville, Crawford County, and Allegheny College is best viewed as a partnership that brings benefits to all.
Let me back up first. Allegheny College is a small, well-respected liberal arts school, with an enrollment of 2,100. Meadville is a city with a strong industrial heritage. County Commissioner Morris Waid described to me how the area was stunned back in the mid 1980’s when two of its largest manufacturers closed down, putting over 2,000 people out of work.
The1.4 million square foot American Viscose plant in Meadville has undergone a rehabilitation through Pennsylvania’s first brownfields restoration project. Over 20 businesses employing 900 workers now occupy 900,000 square feet of the area of the former plant.
Over the past decade, the paths taken by the city and county in their efforts at economic recovery and by the college in its focus on student “service learning,” have become increasingly intertwined.
Amara Geffen is an artist and professor of art (since 1982) at Allegheny College. Twelve years ago she became involved in the creation of an interdisciplinary environmental studies program. And, before you ask the question, the answer is “yes, there’s a link between art and the environment.” Many of the faculty participating in the environmental studies program were interested in applied learning opportunities. This led, in turn, to the creation of the Center for Environmental and Economic Development, or “CEED” as its called, which Geffen now directs.
“A Place-Based Education”
As Geffen explained, the CEED program was aimed at linking students with the Meadville community, with a focus on projects involving “sustainability.” “CEED has provided a mechanism for place-based education tied to the educational curriculum,” she told me. When Geffen saw my puzzled look, she added, “think of it as an applied liberal arts education where students learn by being engaged with the community while working on different projects.”
One point that nearly everyone I met with in Meadville made is that the community has a strong “sense of place.” Indeed, the CEED program and Allegheny College’s commitment to the city and county is evidence of the value it puts on this place. As Crawford County Planning Director Jack Lynch added, “this is also a pretty pro-active place, with strong collaboration between government, business, and the academic community.”
Using a Fence to Bring the Community Together: Gateway Art
Amara Geffen’s background as an artist and art teacher may have helped her see an opportunity for beauty that many might have overlooked. Today, thanks to her leadership, and the hard work of her students, as you enter the city on U.S. 6/322 you see a beautiful mural composed of hundreds of feet of recycled road signs lining the side of the highway, hiding the view of the DOT’s maintenance facility.
But you wouldn’t know they were recycled road signs unless you got out of your car (which, Geffen told me, several visitors do every day) and took a closer look.
Over the course of several years, this wonderful project — known informally as “The Fence”— has been growing along the main gateway into Meadville. For a complete scrollable view of The Fence, and more on its history.
Putting it together has involved not just Allegheny students but local high school students as well. Penn DOT has also been an enthusiastic partner in this project, even helping out with some of the welding. The art serves not just to highlight different features of Meadville, but to hide from view Penn DOT’s maintenance facility, which used to be set off by an unattractive 6 foot high chain link fence.
Art, college, community. There’s much to learn from Allegheny College and Meadville.
- Check out these pictures of phase 2 !
- Learn more about the process and partnerships that made this project happen!