Hardly a day passes without the shuttering of one favorite local haunt or another.
The headlines always sound the same:
People are always sad, and surprised, though I often wonder why. It’s not enough to just like the idea of a place, you actually have to support it. Commerce is funny that way.
Sure, I liked the big-name meal-kit companies, but as soon as I saw that my local farmer’s market was offering a similar service, I switched. Plenty of times I think about the convenience of grabbing a loaf of bread at whatever supermarket I happen to be in, but I usually hold off until I can buy from the bakery around the corner from my house. Same loyalty goes for my favorite women’s clothing shop owned by a mother and daughter and a bike shop a few blocks away that may have more limited hours and inventory than the big box stores, but is a place I want to help stay open.
Any time I’m tempted to stray, I ask myself one question:
What kind of neighborhood do I want to live in?
That’s the question people need to start asking, and quick, about Port Richmond and the Portside Arts Center before it finds itself featured in one of those too-familiar headlines.
If you haven’t heard of Portside, swing by. There’s no missing it — it’s the colorful building on the corner of Lehigh and Belgrade, wrapped in a fish mural that even covers the roof. Just be sure to have some time on your hands.
Led by founder, artist, and resident den mother Kim Creighton, it’s a warm, inviting place where time seems to stop. During one visit, when I had planned to stay an hour, tops, I found myself, several hours later, talking art and art education and what it takes to keep a place like Portside going.
Portside runs its after-school and summer camps, adult classes, and the popular scholarship-generating Lehigh Avenue Arts Festival on grants, sponsorships, and individual donors — and, sometimes, Creighton’s own money.
Part of the center’s financial woes stem from people liking the idea of the arts a lot more than they like writing the checks to keep arts going. Another is that as the nonprofit, which has taught visual and performing arts since 2008, increased services and activities, it didn’t always increase its rates, even as the neighborhood became more gentrified and many newer residents were able to afford more.
The small staff, which has been going without pay, is working on a more sustainable plan, but they have to stick around long enough to implement it — and they want to make sure that they’re still accessible to lower-income students.
The place really comes alive when the kids come barreling through its doors.
On a recent trip, there was Freddy Taylor, the 10-year-old whip-smart entrepreneur, and Skyler Ertwine, 7, the sweet “selfie” expert, and Lily Clark, 11, the thoughtful budding artist who summed up many of the kids’ feelings on their home away from home.
“Here I learned how to express my feelings through art,” she said, showing off an impressive, colorful painting she called “Galaxy.” “It lets students freely express their creativity and be themselves.”
Taylor is aware of the ticking clock, and the fund-raising efforts, including a GoFundMe campaign to raise $30,000 — all the kids are.
“This place is something different,” said Taylor. “I hope we’re able to save it.”
There are some options: limited programming, moving, rent-free, to nearby Hackett Elementary School. But as good as that might sound, it would mean closing the doors to a community hub.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Carly Najera, who was picking up her 7-year-old daughter, Clementine. “Art always comes last.”
Creighton and her crew are still plotting, still hoping that they not only get closer to their fund-raising goal but that they are able to sustain themselves for years to come. Whatever happens, their survival depends on one thing. “We have to have support from our community to sustain ourselves,” Creighton said.
So, it’s on you and me, Philly. Ask yourself: What kind of city do you want to live in?
If it’s one with neighborhoods with endearing, eye-catching community centers like Portside, with places where kids like Freddy and Lily and Skyler can discover and express themselves, where arts don’t come last, you know what to do.