The Case for Culture in the Promise Zone: Connecting Federal Initiatives with Place-Based Culture

Posted by Ms. Lindsay So, Aug 19, 2015 0 comments

Philadelphia is known for a lot of things: Rocky, Will Smith, dedicated sports fans, cheesesteaks…

We’re also a city where:

  • Approximately 3 out of every 10 residents are eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
  • 18% did not graduate high school
  • 7.8% are unemployed (well above the national, state, and regional levels)
  • We have the 6th highest homicide rate among nation’s 10 largest cities

 (Pew State of the City 2015)

These numbers are an improvement over the past 10 years, and Philadelphians old and new, in both the public and private sectors continue pushing for reform to make the city a place where our children will want to live.

Over the past 18 months, the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy ( has taken up the charge to assert arts and culture as an essential dimension of revitalization and opportunity in Philadelphia neighborhoods. We are looking to promote and support community-based cultural assets valued for their community connection. This work is very much in line with the work Americans for the Arts is doing via their Community Visions Initiative discussed in the first book published this summer, Arts & America: Arts, Culture, and the Future of America's Communities

2015 Spiral Q Middle Years Alternative School Be the SparQ Parade | Photo from Spiral Q Puppet Theater

Map of the West Philadelphia Promise Zone

When the area in West Philadelphia received the Promise Zone designation in 2014, we were surprised to see arts and culture omitted from the original committee logic model. The Promise Zone is a Presidential initiative designed to increase economic mobility, improve educational opportunities, and reduce violent crime in locations of deep and persistent poverty. Designation includes a package of assistance to help local leaders accelerate efforts to revitalize their communities. This same area is home to a vibrant culture, strong anchor institutions and other economic drivers – making the community fertile ground for creative placemaking and its long-term impacts. 

We formed the Arts and Cultural Community Consortium – and ad-hoc committee of these organizations to promote the involvement of community arts organizations in neighborhood revitalization and their role in community wellbeing. Consortium members like the Community Education Center ( and Spiral Q Puppet Theater ( are a testament to the arts role in shaping their community’s identity and wellbeing. It was time to make the value of cultural engagement known. 

Using CultureBlocks (, the accompanying report from SIAP ( and a report from Drexel University (, we presented our case to the initiative leadership:

  • The West Philadelphia Promise Zone has a 51% poverty rate, high housing vacancy, serious crime, and low education levels that make residents economically uncompetitive;
  • Cultural engagement correlates with indicators of revitalization – reductions in poverty, lower levels of social stress, and fewer incidents of ethnic and racial harassment. (Stern and Seifert, 2013);
  • Residents in this area see arts and culture as crucial to their community’s ability to educate youth, build employment skills, bridge generations, and revitalize spaces (Hawkins, Vakharia and Zitcer, 2014);
  • The West Philadelphia Promise Zone has 60 cultural assets – the greatest concentration outside of the high-market area of Center City Philadelphia; and
  • At least a quarter of these organizations offer cultural programming for youth and families.

And by April 2015, Promise Zone leadership had updated their impact model to look like this:

Collaborative Impact Model  Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, City of Philadelphia

Even more recently, Promise Zone leadership launched its Achieving Capacity Together (ACT) program in spring 2015 to provide mini-grants to West Philadelphia Promise Zone organizations. Three Arts and Cultural Community Consortium members were among the first round of grantees, receiving funds for creative programs focused on the preservation of community history and youth development activities.

With this initiative, the City of Philadelphia is making room for arts and culture at the planning and policy table. The West Philadelphia Promise Zone was an opportunity for the arts sector to be acknowledged and accepted as a major tool for community opportunity and revitalization, and is now an example of how arts and culture can (and should) be included. 

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