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Unburning/Unburying North Philly

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Unburning Freedom Hall

Philadelphia is built on the ruins of the decades prior. When you dig into the ground you dig straight into houses collapsed into their own basements, and covered over with toxic soil. When you excavate the bricks you find remnants of the lives lived and interrupted in each of these spaces. Like chopped up roots left to find their way back to the sun. So too lies the memories of North Philly, starved for oxygen with each demolition and displacement, buried further underground/deeper in the subconscious every time a neighborhood turns over. These psychospatial graves remain ever underfoot and unreconciled.

Around 178 years ago in Philly, Pennsylvania Hall was opened on the corner of 6th and Haines, with the express intention of serving as a local headquarters for the abolitionist movement. Four days later, a mob burned it to the ground while the local fire brigade watched. The hopes and memories of the short lived space were cut off at the root and buried. In 1997, Mierle Laderman Ukeles orchestrated the social art project, Unburning Freedom Hall, an interactive series of conversations/workshops around creating capsulized “unburnings,” or memories enclosed in jars as an act of recovering the lost space.

In a sense, the time capsule that we are seeking to create at the Community Futures Lab is an act of Unburning or Unburying North Philly. With each memory, we’re trying to sift through the rubble and vacant lots to reclaim the past and the tools for determining the future. In my observations, there seems to be a link missing from the past to the present in many neighborhoods where displacement has occurred. There are roots underfoot, but they have been chopped up and gnarled, and it is very difficult to take control of the future when the present is situated so precariously on top of a disconnected past. In many ways, this project feels like an exercise in cultural archaeology, wherein we are able to excavate the intangible memories tied to the shifting geographies around us.

In Something Torn and New: An African Renaisssance, Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo shares this sentiment that feels appropriate: “Memory is the link between the past and the present, between space and time, and it is the base of our dreams.” The time capsules that Community Futures Lab will create with and within the community give community members a platform to tell their own stories and control how they are represented to others. The offerings of dreams of the future intertwined with the sacrifices of the past.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, "Unbuning Freedom"
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