Lily Yeh is an artist, and her masterpiece is a transformed neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Inner city communities face obstacles that often feel insurmountable: crime, poverty, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, and social isolation—to name only a few. Feelings of despair can arise when both residents and outsiders begin to lose faith in the possibility of change. How can we break through this sense of hopelessness?
Placemaking can play such a 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 narrowly addressed in terms of specific issues or professional fields. This is just what Lily Yeh did in North Philadelphia, where she began working in 1989. Utilizing the principles of Placemaking, Yeh launched a far-reaching project that provided the neighborhood with a new sense of possibility and purpose.
Yeh is an unconventional changemaker for inner cities: She is not a social worker, urban planner, or economic development expert, not a wealthy philanthropist, political powerbroker, or business executive. Instead, she is an artist who was born into 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.
As a student, she was inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. In 1989, while in Beijing showing her paintings at the Central Institute of Fine Arts, 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. As a tour guide for visiting Chinese artists a few years earlier, she brought a group to the North Philadelphia studio of dancer Arthur Hall, who asked for 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, like photographs of the bombed-out cities at the end of World War II—and she didn’t quite know where to start. She did know, however, that 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 would eventually become the most important art project of her life. Soon the whole neighborhood was involved in cleaning up the area, painting murals, and creating an “art park” that became the pride of the community.
From this project, Yeh founded The Village of Arts and Humanities, which yearly served over 10,000 low-income, primarily African-American youth and families, covering several neighborhoods within a 260 square block area in North Philadelphia. In 2002, she founded Barefoot Artists, an organization that brings the transformative power of art to impoverished communities across the globe through participatory and multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve and advance indigenous art and culture. Since then, she has helped launch arts projects countries all over the world, such as Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Ecuador, Syria, China, Haiti, India, Taiwan, Palestine, and the Republic of Georgia.
Three decades later, the North Philly neighborhood that sparked her lifelong work continues to face multiple challenges. The area, and the community, is still full of hope thanks to the Village of Arts and Humanities. The small art park started by Yeh and a group of neighborhood kids has become a tangible symbol of renewal, now covering more than 120 formerly vacant lots with murals, 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, which includes plays written by young people drawing on their own experiences in North Philly. 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 event 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. Leaving the project in the hands of the local communitiy, 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."
“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, neighborhood resident
“[Yeh] 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