Revitalization had begun in recent years in Chester, a city of about 34,000 located just outside of Philadelphia—and the Chester Made project ensured that the humanities are part of the process. We believe the power of people’s own stories should be at the heart of such community and economic development. The best planning process enables residents of a community to define their hopes for the future.
A one-mile long Chester Cultural Corridor had been proposed in the downtown between City Hall and Widener University. In February 2015 an ensemble of artists from Chester asked local youth, seniors, artists, community leaders, business owners, Widener University students, and many others to share their personal stories of how local arts and culture make a difference in their lives. In follow-up, we developed an online cultural assets map showing where “arts and culture happen” in Chester.
Chester Made artists pose for a "selfie" at community story gathering event
The goal was to bring residents together along the corridor to be inspired by the city’s rich history and by all that Chester arts and culture has to offer today. The project uses theatre and dialogue to rejuvenate the landscape and structures of downtown Chester through design, civic engagement, economic development, and of course, the arts and the humanities.
In working toward this goal, PHC worked in partnership with the City of Chester, Widener University, Chester Arts Alive!, Gas & Electric Arts, and The Artist Warehouse. Involvement in this partnership catapulted the Chester Made partners into a national network of experts participating in the Obama Administration’s Strong City, Strong Communities initiative that were committed to using the arts and humanities for civic engagement, creative placemaking, and empowering democracy.
With help from The German Marshall Fund of the United States and funds from the Surdna Foundation, the partners kicked off the first of many peer exchanges with the District of Columbia Office of Planning, then worked with Virginia Tech’s faculty on theatre in placemaking and Animating Democracy on arts-based civic engagement. We also engaged nearly 75 leaders in Chester, who helped us develop and refine our plans so that the project reflected the vision of the community.
There was plenty more in store for the future, including celebrations of Chester Made arts and culture in pop-up events. We wanted to ensure that Chester Made arts and culture were fully visible so that we can attract support for large-scale public arts and humanities projects and other campaigns for cultural revitalization, which we did with Chester Made Exploration Zone.
We were honored to be a part of Chester’s rich cultural history and to utilize the humanities to help revitalize this amazing city, and Pennsylvania Humanities Council be recognized by The White House for our efforts: “The participation of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council [in Chester Made] demonstrates that the practice and tools of the humanities are important assets to bring to the table when working in community engagement.” -- From White House Letter of Commendation for the Stronger Cities, Stronger Communities program dated December 27, 2016 and presented March 15, 2018.