Cultivating Smart Growth through Art and Greening

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 14, No 1 (Winter 2003)

Lily Yeh
This paper is a transcript of a key note address given on Monday, October 28, 2002. The talk was organized around a series of projected slide images that gave added dimension to Yeh's words.

Conference Introduction

Lily will do a much better job of talking about her work than I can, but I have to say that as a fellow Philadelphian and as a member of a foundation that's been very proud to support her work over the years, she exemplifies the spirit of what this conference is about in the most extraordinary way, by combining artistic and aesthetic expression at the very highest level with commitment to community in the most profound way. I introduce Lily Yeh.

— Marian Godfrey




Hi, good morning, everybody. What an honor to be here. I see so many people who have supported our work at the Village. With deep gratitude I want to tell my humble story. But I have to say I feel a lot of apprehension because I'm in front of all the experts and I only have one song to sing; it's the same song, even though it's evolving. I talked to a friend, and he was so kind. He said, "Well, the same song — nevertheless, it's classic. Go and sing it!” So here is my song.

The story started in 1986 when I met Arthur Hall, who has since passed away. He had a wonderful organization called the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the heart of north Philadelphia, and he was a wonderful dancer with a dance group. I admired his work very much. I met him, and he looked at my work. He told me, “I have a little abandoned lot next to my building. Would you come and help me to build a garden?”

I was doing interior garden design, and I was younger and more naïve and didn't really know the world, and so happily I said, “Yeah, I would help you with that.” And at the same time, since I didn't have much success in many things, I said, “Oh, you know, this is an idea, and nobody is going to take me seriously.” That was how the work began.

And so I wrote a proposal to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. I said, “Oh, building a park with $5,000 will be enough.” I didn't know then that the funding world gives you half of what you need, and then you have to match the other half. So I got $2,500. I was stunned! My first thought was, “Why gee, they give me money for what I simply put on paper. Wow!”

I walked around a little dazed, and then when I came to my senses I said, “This is serious. Now how do you do this? I have no idea how to do it! ” So I said, “Well, I've got to talk to the professionals.” And I asked, “Well, how do you do this in this place?” And then they said, “You're Chinese, you're an outsider. Don't go in, because the kids are going to destroy everything you build.” And they said, “$2,500? It's a drop in the bucket. You should do a feasibility study and forget about your project.” Right? [laughter]

So I said, “Boy, you know, those are all such good suggestions. So wise....”

I remember I was very involved with China then, with the whole process of finding my own identity. So I came back, and the little lot had become ten sizes bigger because the city had leveled all the abandoned houses. Now we had a lot the size of eleven house lots. I looked at it and I said, “Man! No way I could do this. I don't know how to do it.”

So I began drafting a letter saying that I would withdraw from the proposal without losing my face, that it's not my fault, but the situation changed. And as I was writing the letter a very small voice in me said very, very clearly, “You must rise to the occasion, otherwise the best of you will die and the rest will amount to nothing.”

So I said, “Gee, I have to look at myself in the mirror down the line. I have to be able to face myself! Well, maybe I can or cannot do a garden. But I can buy a lot of things, you know, like the cement and lathe wires and all that, and we will have a good time with the children.” And so that's how it started.

I went in, and I knew nobody and didn't know a thing about building. I said, “Arthur, I need help!” So he said, “Go and find JoJo.” JoJo lived in an abandoned house. I went to see him twice and both times he'd just left before I arrived. Then I realized that he was ducking me. He heard about me and said, “I want to have nothing to do with the crazy Chinese woman coming after me!” But the third time he was one step too slow. He was tying his shoelaces and ready to step out, and I said, “JoJo, you'd better talk to me!”

I told him about my dream, and he liked the idea. He bought into it, and then...we started.

When we began there were no adults., just JoJo and me, and from the very beginning I did everything wrong. I didn't have a feasibility report, I didn't even have a plan! I had no idea what I was going to do! I was just going there to sense the situation.

I went in and started poking around in the Inner City . When the children were passing by us and saw us poking around, they said, “Boy, it looks like they are having a good time!” So they came to ask, “Can we help you?”

I was prepared for them. I had shovels and spades and so forth, and I said, “You do this; you do this.” I became a little commander-in-chief of the group of children. That's how it started. They were happy and they were working.

And then the challenge was, how do you make a park in a place that has no resources and is completely stark and bleak? Out of the years of study of art history, religion, and all that I said, “It needs a center and to have a sense of orientation.” And so I literally picked up a stick and drew a center in the lot, right in the center.

Looking back, I see I am a very, very late bloomer. For twenty years I was really searching for who I was in this country. You know, what do I do? What is my purpose? And finally, looking back I realize that it's from my own center the whole thing unfolded.

The place called for green, for anything that's growing. And since we were too poor to buy a tree, I said, “Well, let's make cement trees.”

And so the children were very happy when we used a lathe wire and made the structure, and the cement tree. And JoJo every morning would water the cement tree, water the pavement, water the stone and block. I said, “JoJo, it's cement. It's not going to grow!” He said, “No, this is sacred!” And lo and behold, it unfolded in a way that was beyond our imaginations.

And then the children were busy — you have to keep them busy. They are so smart: If you do something not so smart they are ahead of you and they challenge you. That's how we began the children's program.

I didn't want to work with children; they gave me more headaches than anything else. [laughter] But then, you know, if you don't work with them, they will destroy everything you build. So I said, “Got to involve them!“

Making the cement sculpture — for them it's all mud pie, having good time. One afternoon after the cement sculpture was made, we made it white, and then — you know, I'm a painter, so I brought in color, and the children couldn't wait to touch the colors.

They were so wise, and said, “Miss Lily, how come your sculptures look like fortune cookies?” I didn't like the comment; it was not a very flattering comment. But I thought, “Well, gee, they do look like the fortune cookies!” You know? And I said, “Well, that was the simplest way to make a flat surface stand in a three-dimensional way. That was the only way I knew how to make it work. And I said, “Well, you'd better think of good fortunes. Then maybe they will come true.”

When I came back, I remember the place looked really ugly. And I remember asking JoJo a question, innocently. I said, “JoJo, you know, all those adults...” (They would be sitting on the doorstep watching us working so hard.) “It's just us and children, and why wouldn't they come and help us?”

And JoJo was stunned by the naiveté of my question. He said, “Help you? They are laughing their teeth off about your project!” I said “Wow, laughing their teeth off. They don't have to go to such an extreme.” And I said, “Why do they do that?” He said, “They see a woman and a bunch of children who don't know what they are doing.”

I didn't like that either, but I thought about it, and I said, “Wow, they are right! I was a woman working with a bunch of children. We didn't know what we were doing.” But...but we were doing it.

And that's when I began to understand an organic process. It is not that you study it all and you study every step the way we would like to do it. It's chaotic. It's evolving, and yet it's driven by an innate intelligence. That is the unfolding of an organic process.

When I look back it looks pretty laughable. Isn't it pretty laughable? The paint's peeling off like it has a disease. And I said, “How do we make it more beautiful?”

That's when I learned mosaic, and the children were helping me to do the mosaics. Then I convinced this wonderful organization in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia Green, part of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, to give us black dirt and wood chips and so forth. I never before knew the power of black dirt. When the truck came and dumped the first dirt with the steam rising, with the dragonflies and the butterflies and the children running after them, they brought tears to people's eyes because they represented the beginning of hope.

I said, “I'm a painter. I'm going to make a painting — eighteen feet by ten feet.” I said, “What makes sense to paint here? It needs water. For artists, you know, the cheapest way to get maximum water is to paint the ocean. And it needs color. So I said, “Sunset in the sea. That makes sense here.”

I was painting. I was full of confidence, I was going to knock it out. I was doing all kinds of sea installations at the time.

And then I learned that the minute you're so sure and comfortable and confident, that's when you get stuck in the mud. That afternoon the painting just wouldn't breathe and I was miserable. Then somebody came down the street and saw my expression, and he just screamed, “More white, more white!” And I put the white in; it began to breathe.

At the end of the two months, the first summer, there was not much to write home about, but it began to have a sense of order. You know, at the Village we do things three times over. It's not like you have a plan you do and you never change again. We call it an urban village evolving in the process of creating itself. What does that mean? It is living. The art serves the purpose as long as it's needed, and then it's taken away and is replaced with something new.

When I left this place I was so happy, I never intended to return. I dusted the dust off my pants and went back to my academic life and going to galleries and museums. That's what we were taught; that's where artists need to go, right?

But throughout the year I couldn't forget this place. Something hooked me in a very significant way, and so thinking back, I think nowhere are we offered such opportunities. We are giving the opportunity to work together, a group of people in a difficult situation and to solve problems ourselves. Children came to us. Children's work directly contributed to the transformation of their own environment. That is more powerful than anything I have experienced. So I came back a second year, a third year.

In 1990 I was able to raise enough money to get a scaffold. It was wonderful.

And then another house, a few steps from the back of the Village, collapsed. The City removed the house, and so we had a little alley with nice walls. Since I'm a painter I said, “What makes sense to paint here?”

Our community is like a minefield. It's dangerous. It's full of mines. And our young people, we lose them in crimes, on drugs, and then we work with inmates, lifers. And I said, “This is a dangerous place. And since we're artists, we can't do medicine, we can't do food, we don't know about houses. The only thing we can do is create images that make sense and can protect this community.”

That's when I thought about the angels. And I said, “The angels cannot be from the European tradition, nor the Chinese tradition; they have to come from the African tradition, because our mission is to honor, to do justice to the people we serve.” Justice! To honor, cherish, and respect: and this is the way we can respect the people we're working with.

From a book I cherished, of Ethiopian icons, I recreated little images into eight-foot tall angels that became the theme.

I will tell you Big Man's moving story. Not only was he big physically, he was big in the drug trade. When Big Man came to us, his body was in rags. He came to JoJo for refuge and to stay here temporarily. I was making mosaics. He never had had art and also had very little positive feedback in his life.

I needed the community to help me. I needed people to help me to make mosaics, so he was there and he simply put together mosaic tiles, one after the other. And when you put the mosaic tile there it's so simple: it's yellow is yellow; red is red; green is green. When you put them together they all look good because color looks good. You can't fail art in art.

He was a major destructive force in the neighborhood. When people saw that Big Man was putting mosaic tiles, one next to the other, people said that, “Well, gee, I like that. This looks good.” And for Big Man, who never had much positive input in his life, every comment was a drop of water and dew that soothed his parched soul and made it come back to life. He liked it. He said, “I like art, and I like this experience.” And he said, “If Lily comes back next summer, I will leave drugs.”

It's been fourteen years now that he's clean. Not only that, he is on our board. He is our operations director. Because of him, four groups of NA, Narcotic Anonymous, people have been meeting for ten years weekly at the Village.

The angels in our Angel Alley could not move, yet in miraculous ways they have watched over us and safeguarded our community.

And then we had another series of events. We're very poor and depleted of resources, but we were blessed with the wealth of abandoned buildings and abandoned lots, and from that we can find a way to rebirth. We were just so happy, we were you know, like mud diggers at the fringe of the society, but now this was funded by NEA, by the Pew, and then by William Penn and so I said, “My, we are making it big this time!” And of course we made many, many mistakes. I said, “We must not make mistakes; we must be like the professionals.” So I called the professional people to help us to level the ground.

And then I realized there were two challenges. One was that they would knock out more than half our funding before we even started. And the second, more serious one, is that if they did everything for us, our people would never have the chance to make mistakes and to experiment and to become empowered. And I said, “We've got to do it ourselves.”

And then I said, “I want to make a beautiful boundary that welcomes people. What is the most challenging thing in this task? It's digging. ” So I said, “We have to dig into the ground.”

In the Inner City they bury everything into the basement when they destroy a house, and so you cannot dig too long because you get shocks in your hands. So I said, “Well, we need a bobcat. Let's locate a bobcat.” So I called the rental tool company and I said, “Do you have a bobcat?” And they said, “Yeah, we have a bobcat. When do you need it?” I was so shocked by the question, because nobody could drive the bobcat, you know? SoI said to myself, “Let me not tell him I can't drive it.” Then I thought, quickly, you know, racing, “Why, gee, he didn't ask me whether I have a license. I bet if I have a drivers license it means I can drive a bobcat.” So I said, “Well, you know, deliver your bobcat.”

Of course we tried to find a person who had learned to drive a bobcat. But also the driver was so kind. He was very moved by what we were doing and he spent half an hour teaching us. There's a chart on the bobcat, and you can follow that, and you practice in the open field. You can become a skilled driver. So we all become skilled. You feel as powerful as a bobcat.

Of course, today we are so big, the first thing my staff would say would be, “What is our liability policy?” You know? There's a benefit to not knowing too much.

Our crew, our raggedy crew. People come in because it means being together. It means doing something positive, and it was so moving, the process of making this. I think you will like the product, but the process was even more wonderful, because we saw the re-connection of families. A mother would come to us smiling and say, “My son can come home now. He's not stealing televisions to buy drugs.” Those are the most moving tales.

We started digging. We poured our own concrete. In our little settlement we have a hermit, a Christian hermit, who happened to be a genius in construction, so he was telling us how to do things. Mr. Johnson, who has passed — bless his soul — he was there every morning at 9:00 a.m. supervising my team.

We built the wall. Of course, as beginners, we overbuilt. We could build a three- or four-story building on the foundation we built. It's solid. Over-solid. We were so careful, we used carpenters' tools, you know, everything is level. But I distinctly remember one afternoon before the humps were on the wall, I said, “The walls are perfect. Now our crew knows how to do good masonry work,” but my heart was so unhappy because there's something so mundane about the walls and about the space. And that's when I remember the wonderful humped wall form in Malian architecture. And I said, “It makes sense here. Let's recycle the broken pieces and then create something new.” It's the same way the mosaics make so much sense — making something new from recycled broken pieces. In north Philadelphia we're all dysfunctional and we're all broken. And yet through art we re-create ourselves into a whole, into beauty.

We didn't really want...I didn't want to do houses. The garden and the community children were already over-whelming to me. But since I wanted a beautiful wall, I had to repair a broken house. That's how the construction renovation began to happen. Because of the wall, we tackled it.

Then we were blessed with another abandoned lot filled with trash. And one thing that we can brag about is removing tons of garbage on our own. This began the beginning of our food-growing effort — fifteen families cultivating the food. Mrs. Bigsby, who happened to live next door, had never planted. She became the chief of the vegetable garden. In the springtime she and other people would help the children to grow seedlings in our little basement, and then they would cultivate them in the garden and then the families would come to harvest.

Another thing we did, without intending to, through the unfolding process, was reconnect the broken part. Our society segregates different parts according to their work, according to age, according to economic class and so forth. We hardly see each other except for the people we work with or study with and whatnot. And I feel that we need each other's help. In our vegetable garden, our workshops, our field training, in all kinds of things, we reconnect the generation gap and we pass on what we have learned to our children.

We all know that we are plagued by unhealthy food, which is full of fat and eventually is going to kill us. This is especially true in the Inner City. And so it's very, very important for our population to have healthy food, especially when they're little and getting used to that diet. We try to get them to have a relationship with the land, and then we get them to go and pick the vegetables, and teach them cooking. We have a workshop to teach them international cuisine culture and acclimate their palates to healthy food. Eventually we are preparing for a café business.

I thought community building was only for a place where you can stay for a long time. But in 1993 and 1994, I got a Lila Wallace-Arts International Artist Fellowship, and I went to Kenya. After I showed people my work I was introduced to Father Alex, who had a church right in the community in the dump. This community of Koroggocho, outside Nairobi, contains 100,000 people and is the most dreadful and unreal place I have ever been. People said, “You must talk to him; maybe you can do a project there.”

I went to the community. I could hardly breathe because of the pollution. And I said, ‘No way could I make anything here.’ And then lo and behold, I mustered my courage and went in. It became the most profound experience in my life. Some of the people were the Mukuru (mukuru means garbage), and many are refugees from Somalia. This dump is where people live, making a living from the recycled materials. That's the reality.

The only place where there is a solid wall where I could hold a community workshop is the church, St. John's Church. And I said, “My purpose is to involve as many people as possible.” Eight-hundred children use this place. I said to them, “Well, you know, when we have to paint we have to shake the paint. Why not? Anybody pick up a paint container and do a paint shaking dance.” The children were very happy. And we started the project that way. We got adults involved, designing patterns and painting them on the wall to transform it. We painted the angels — the Ethiopian angels — on the top.

It took some getting used to. I was painting from a ladder made of just pieces of wood put together: it shakes if you move. I was so frightened because you read in your guidebook that if you just breathe the air, you possibly catch fifty different kinds of diseases. And so I was guarding myself, covering my face, gargling, everything. I said, “Oh I hope the community will forgive me for my cowardice.” A child came to my rescue. He took a look at me all covered up and said, “You must be a ninja painter!” So I was so relieved. I said, “Oh, thank you, yes. That I am.”

In painting with bright colors, the energy was building and people were so happy, nobody could imagine such bright colors, such beautiful images could be in the garbage dump.

I was making a set of angels. I love Chinese tomb figurines, so we made African/Chinese sculptures of the angels. I was looking for a home of the angels, and found this abandoned platform with iron stick sticking out. I said, “This is perfect for the sculptures” — the jutted place by the platform where they burn trash. Over the fence is where you see the dump site. And I said, “That's where the angels need to be!” And when they burn the trash, the smoke becomes incense for the angels. It all makes sense. I think that's where beauty and art needs to be. When we're building this, building the energy... I feel this in places sometimes, in desperate places, where one feels helpless: what one can do is totally be there. As an artist what I can do is to be there to bear witness and to tell the story.

This is the Taoist way of thinking, you know. We must embrace the negative. In crises, in broken-down places, is the opportunity for rebirth and re-creation. See, we say “recreation,” but we must say “re-creation.” It is not that we look at other people to entertain us, but we take the role and action to create things that will make things better for us, ourselves.

We say, “Look at yourself! Your magnificent self.” In the Inner City, surviving one day is to be celebrated.

And so I said, “This needs to be witnessed.” So I worked with my host and we invited international guests there. That morning we got the embassies — German, Italian, Swiss, American, Brazilian. The American ambassador, Aurelia Brazeal, honored us with her presence. Father Alex understood the importance. He said that if people from the outside come and witness this, the people could feel their suffering is not in vain and they are not forgotten. In all my projects, I have felt the importance of art at moments like that, when the door opened through art so sunlight from the outside was able to penetrate the darkness.

Smart growth for me is how a seed grows, a tree grows. It's driven by something deeper than just the mind. It's not linear, but holistic, multidimensional, multilevel.

Lily Yeh is founder and executive director of the Village of the Arts and Humanities. The Village is a community-based arts, education, and neighborhood development organization located in North Philadelphia. Through arts-based programs and activities, the Village works with residents to reclaim abandoned space and rebuild a sense of hope and possibility in their neighborhood.