Sometimes two are better than one.
Germantown-native and filmmaker Rel Dowdell is well aware of this.
When he had the script ready for Changing the Game – inspired by his Northwest Philadelphia experiences, he knew that he needed major funding.
So, he approached commercial loan broker Karen Isaac to produce his project and the partnership has yielded a close collaboration for the film that will be released Friday, May 11 nationwide.
To celebrate this milestone Dowdell and Isaac were on hand for the private gala screening of Changing the Game held at the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Van Pelt Auditorium on Friday, May 4. Cast members like Irma P. Hall and Tony Todd were on hand to step on the red carpet. The feature film also stars actors Sean Riggs and Dennis L. A. White.
“I was in town for the Legacy of Love Awards when Rel Dowdell approached me with this inspiring and motivating script,” said Isaac, who lives in Bethesda, Md. “I knew right away that this thought provoking film had to be on the screen. I am so excited about producing my first feature film. It not only gives a talented filmmaker this opportunity, but this is a new venture for me as well.”
Dowdell is quick to point out that his Northwest city roots permeate the entire film. First, Changing the Game was actually shot here in parts of his “old stomping ground” in Germantown and in North Philadelphia. Secondly, the protagonist is a coagulation of many of the people he grew up with and/or went to college with before they started their careers.
The filmmaker is proud of the fact that it tells a side of the African American story that is not usually told.
“This is about Darrell Barnes who grew up in the notorious are of Eighth and Butler,” he said. “I chose that location because when I was growing up in Germantown it had a reputation as one of the toughest neighborhoods. Yet despite his address he was able to have a successful life.”
Yet Barnes must face other villains as he rises in income, status and power. This is where the film takes a sharp departure from many stereotypical movies with African American leading characters, according to Dowdell.
“So, this is not a typical urban African American genre film,” added John McDonald, who coordinated the publicity for the film’s opening. “Dowdell incorporates several plot twists to ensure this is not the case.”
Dowdell hopes local audiences will see parts of themselves in the film. “The characters could live in Mount Airy, Germantown or North Philadelphia. It has action, comedy and a story that someone can relate to. I hope people will go to see the film and not buy it on bootleg. When you make a multi-million dollar film those bootleg copies don’t hurt as much since the circulation is broader.
“What people have to understand is that in order for these types of African American films to succeed you need to see it,” Dowdell said. “That’s why I want all to come out relax and see this. You will have a great time and help positive films to thrive.”
Germantown community groups came together to discuss the neighborhood’s issues and how they could address them as a unified front at an Aug. 15 meeting held at the offices of State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-201).
Various groups including the Germantown United Community Development Corp. (GUCDC), Jones Temple Church of God In Christ (COGIC), and Germantown Restoration Community Development Corporation attended the meeting, which was hosted by Kinsey and City Councilwoman Cindy Bass (D-8), who sought to begin a conversation on how the organizations could work together to improve economic and social issues in the area.
“We need to work together to rebuild,” Kinsey said. “The real deal is that resources are scarce and Councilwoman Bass and I believe that if we are going to grow Germantown, it’s going to take a collaborative effort.”
She said after the discussions, the onus would be on the community groups to decide if and how they will work together. “The purpose of the meeting was to [have] organizations start a dialogue,” she said. “Now they can decide where they want to go with this.”
According to the groups in attendance, that effort is something they will work on using information gleaned from the meeting.
Each side introduced their organization and its community efforts and then participated in a two-hour discussion on how they could address Germantown’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
“This was an important meeting,” said Yvonne Haskins, GUCDC co-founder. “We [learned] how to collaborate and form a power base of coalitions.”
Haskins said the next step is to “sit down and say we are going to work together,” and to make a “bond” or “pact” affirming the statement.
For Haskins and others, this would be the best way to address some of Germantown’s weaknesses and threats and capitalize on its strengths.
She named a list of items that could be best completed as one unit.
“We need to develop a business directory so people can know where the good food is and where the new products are, and we need to [decide] how we can help the block captains help each other,” Haskins said.
The Rev. Chester H. Williams, Jones Temple Church of God in Christ Associate Minister, said fighting one item listed as a weakness, could also be addressed with a stronger partnership between community groups.
“It will go away if you start with the basics – cleaning the community, communicating [with] each other, having [unified] community notifications,” he said.
Andrew Trackman, GUCDC President said “gentrification” was one of his major concerns and one he said could be best addressed with a balance of views from different groups.
“I call it the Germantown conundrum,” he said. “If you have a community that is trying to uplift itself, how do you balance that with new people coming in the community? There are people here who want a Stephen Starr restaurant and there are people here who don’t have skills to work in one, so how [can] we bridge that gap and have community economically integrated.”
It is for such multi-faceted problems as these that Kinsey said he hopes the organizations can unite to provide solutions.
“Now that we’ve seen and discussed what the issues are, the next step is working together to resolve them,” he said.
Sustainability has grown from its origins as the buzzword of ultra-environmentalists to an all-encompassing call for social and economic reforms; and now, the Germantown United Community Development Corporation will host the upcoming “It Is Easy Being Green” workshop and symposium, with an eye toward enriching Germantown, and by extension, the entire city.
The symposium will take place on Wednesday, May 8 at the Flying Horse Center, 312 W. Chelten Ave., with a start time of 6 p.m.
“This is the second annual community forum we have done, and our mission is to promote and facilitate the revitalization of the Germantown Business District through a sustainable approach,” explained Germantown United CDC President Andrew Trackman. “Sustainability is a big part of our mission, and we’re trying to start a conversation with the community. We explain to them what sustainability is, and inform them of what they can do as individuals and businesses.”
Trackman explained sustainability as a method that “really brings about a healthier environment for residents and businesses as well,” but that it also has a purely economic angle as well.
“Part of this is economic sustainability,” Trackman said. “We will educate [businesses] on saving money by being green, but we will also discuss the potential for sustainable jobs and sustainable business practices which will help them become more profitable and potentially hire more people.”
The event will feature a wide array of speakers, all well-versed in sustainability. Aine and Emaleigh Doley, co-organizers of the W. Rockland Street Project – a community and citizen-driven cause through small-scale project in the west section of Germantown – will share their experiences and tips, while The Food Trust Director Dwayne Wharton will discuss the need for (and abundance of) affordable sustainable foods, and Wharton will also relay his findings from The Food Trust’s years of collaborating with grocers, farmers and policymakers. Speakers from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will join those from the city of New Haven, Connecticut – which has recently implemented a new approach to combining nutritional facts with greater access to whole and sustainable foods.
Experts in the field, such as the LEED-certified Robert Fleming, Philadelphia University’s associate professor of Sustainable Design and co-founder of the MS in Sustainable Design Program at the school will also give critical insights to the growing sector.
The sustainability movement is picking up steam locally. Mayor Michael Nutter often cites his desire to transform Philadelphia into the “country’s greenest city,” and in February, the city announced that businesses can apply for the Sustainable Business Tax Credit; City Council first passed that bill in 2009, and contains language that will extend the credit through 2017.
“The City of Philadelphia is pleased to offer an innovative incentive that promotes the local clean economy and creates an attractive and supportive environment for sustainable business practices,” Nutter said during the announcement of the SBTC. “We value the work of sustainable businesses and hope this credit encourages the expansion of sustainable practices in Philadelphia.”
To that end, Nutter also created in 2009 the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, which is tasked with overseeing and implementing the city’s various greening programs.
Back in Germantown, it appears that Trackman and the city are on identical paths.
“Our organization’s mission is to promote sustainability, both environmental and economic. Last year’s forum on community development got such a great response, we decided to use the same format this year to bring information on sustainability to the community,” Trackman said, noting that the free event will also feature a moderated question-and-answer period. “Germantown does have a need for more jobs, and part of our focus is economic sustainability.
“This is the start of the conversation, not the end,” Trackman added. “We are hoping to engage Germantown going forward with more projects.”
Mount Airy USA, located at 6703 Germantown Ave., plans to join with Joseph Minardi, who is known for looking at the architectural and historical side of buildings in Philadelphia.
The two will host a walking tour of Germantown, giving visitors, both near and far to the town, a chance to learn about the buildings that are currently standing and its history. This event will be held on May 17, starting at 6:30 p.m.
“[This] is the first event that we’ve had for this event,” said Abby Thaker, Special Projects Manager at Mount Airy USA. “I’ve only been at Mount Airy USA for a year but my understanding is that we haven’t done a walking tour of Germantown Avenue like this.”
Thaker mentioned that the organization had Minardi’s book, “Historical Architecture in Northwest Philadelphia: 1690-1930s” and it helped her to realize what type of history and great stories the buildings are holding in the city.
“Along the outstretch of Germantown, we also have a lot of development projects underway and we thought it’d be great to have an event that would help people will recognize the history of the avenue, as well as the future.”
This tour will take, at the most, an hour in a half for visitors to enjoy, with its starting point beginning at Lovett Park, located at 6945 Germantown Ave., and ending at Little Jimmie’s Bakery Cafe, located at 6669 Germantown Ave.
“Little Jimmie’s Cafe, who has a really beautiful patio in the back, will have cocktails and a light dinner [for participants] after the event,” Thaker said.
The event is also a perfect opportunity for local businesses, who are just starting, to highlight their company for the visitors and answer questions regarding improvements and new buildings coming into the neighborhood.
“For people who are interested in the history of the neighborhood or people who like poking around construction sites can definitely benefit from this tour,” Thaker said.
This tour is currently sold out, however, Thaker suggested to those who would like to participate with the next tour, to contact her for dates and prices.
Interested participants can add themselves to the waiting list, a week prior to an event, which will also give the opportunity of having first dibs on future events.
“What we are planning to do is to see how this tour goes and then, most likely, we’re going to plan another one later in the summer,” she said.
Four families celebrated the final stretch of their homeownership journey with a Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking ceremony held on Aug 7.
The families, along with Habitat For Humanity, Bank of America, and city officials broke ground on Germantown’s Queen Lane where four energy efficient three bedroom, 1.5 bathroom homes will be built.
“I am blessed and overexcited,” said Quaseemah Carr, a government worker who currently lives in the Northeast. “It’s going to be a fresh start for me.”
Carr said the new home will be a welcome change from her current housing situation, where there are six people living in a three-bedroom home.
“It’s over-crowded and we take turns sleeping in the beds,” she said.
Now, with the new home set to be built by the summer of 2014, Carr said she can hardly wait.
“I am ready,” she said. “I am going to be all over the place.”
In order to qualify for the Habitat program, Carr said she and the other families had to complete an application process, home buyer counseling and save a certain amount of money.
They were also required to fulfill 350 “sweat-equity” hours, helping to build others’ and their own Habitat homes and working in the Habitat Restore, all of which they described as a small price to pay for a house with a zero percent mortgage interest rate.
“The sweat-equity hours were a plus. Some might think it’s a down side, but I love it because it shows me how to take care of my house. If I need to re-caulk the bathroom, I know how to do it,” said Tamika Artis, a social worker and mother of one. Artis added that she was excited to become a homeowner for a number of reasons, but mostly because of the effect it would have on her daughter. “Kids mimic what they see. If she sees mommy [achieving] home-ownership, she will know she doesn’t have to rent, but that she can own her own home as well.”
Natasha Spencer, a nurse and mother of three, agreed.
“It makes them realize if they work hard, they get good things,” she said.
These positive effects are what Habitat officials said drive their efforts to build the homes.
“We want everybody to have a safe, decent and affordable place to live,” said Frank Monaghan, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia. “Many of our homeowners are the first in their families to own a home and they are so thrilled because they value the benefits of home ownership.”
Monaghan noted Habitat’s internal research showed that home ownership could benefit a child’s performance in school and future earning power.
Some of the kids will be happy just to have their own space – something Carr said her daughter has been asking about for a while now.
“She is always saying, ‘mama can I have my own bed, can I have my own pillow?’” she said. “It’s going to be excellent for her.”
City councilwoman Cindy Bass and State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, along with their staff, residents, volunteers and community groups cleaned up Germantown Ave. on Saturday in an effort to make the area more welcoming for people who live and shop there.
About 40 people participated in the cleanup, which targeted the area between Church and Walnut Lanes, including Vernon Park and Maplewood Mall.
Volunteers picked up trash and swept the streets and businesses such as PNC Bank, Acclaim Academy and CVS donated food and water. Several volunteers said in addition to beautifying the neighborhood, they hope to send a strong message to the community.
“It starts with us,” said Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Germantown Restoration Community Development Corporation. “We have to do something about it and use it as an opportunity to engage people.” Swinson said.
“We have to put it in people’s conscience,” he said. “If they see us doing this, [hopefully] they will do better and do their part.”
Kinsey noted he and other volunteer’s services at Saturday’s cleanup was in conjunction with the Philadelphia chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. The organization adopted Germantown Ave. and holds monthly street cleanings.
Councilwoman Bass said starting the regular cleanups now and continuing next year with the permanent staff would be key in rebuilding the area, especially in terms of business.
“Germantown and Chelten is one of the busiest transportation hubs in the city, 1000s of people come here every single day,” she said. “To come and go and not feel good about the neighborhood is a waste. We want people to want to come here because it’s clean, inviting and safe.”
For a founding member of the revamped GSSD committee, Marcus Von Heppinstall, cleanup efforts would have also have a positive impact on the morale of business owners.
“The people we are reaching right now are the store owners,” he said. “When we start charging them, they will feel good about where their money is being spent. They will have a better shopping district.”
Philadelphia University (PU) architecture and landscape students presented a set of Germantown development ideas to residents and community leaders recently in an effort to help them improve the economic and social climates of the area.
Using community input, the students devised ways to improve education, business development, transportation and created visual diagrams of these plans, as part of a class project that began in August.
“We wanted to establish a good connection with the community and help them in any way we can,” said Pablo Meninato, PU architecture professor. “[Students] did a survey of the neighborhood, took photos, made drawings and maps, analyzed the information, now they are doing the proposal.”
Students presented in groups and focused on various areas: Vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, education, social and civic centers and business development. The groups discussed, in detail, their proposals with the community and how it would improve Germantown.
One group, with a “town center engine” focus suggested that Germantown “reprogram its spaces” such as buildings and parks, to reconnect businesses and community groups.
The students noted that a center where community groups could meet would “enhance” the neighborhood.
The “Project Restart” group proposed the development of a “green space” that would “create a way everyone could flow in one area.”
Using the vacant lots surrounding various SEPTA stations for industrial and “green” use was a focus for the groups as well. The students suggested that these lots could be best used for “fresh food” access points and small business development.
Improving access to education was another main theme in the presentations. Closed schools, Germantown High and Fulton Elementary, were cited as spaces that could be repurposed as “arts centers” or college prep sites.
Reactions from the community were mixed. Some cited the ideas as a good way to get a discussion started, but some felt that a Germantown revitalization would require more action and less talk.
“They came up with good ideas to put a fresh perspective on things,” said Andy Trackman, Germantown United Community Development Corporation board president. “But, it’s really a starting point.”
Trackman noted that the repurposing plans for neighborhood fixtures, such as Vernon Park, were some of the more prominent suggestions. “They did an investigation and said there are … store backs on Chelten facing Vernon Park that could open out in the park and [form] a boardwalk. I said ‘wow, I never would’ve thought of that.’ It’s that kind of different perspective, which I thought was refreshing.”
Southwest Germantown resident Brenda Cherry said she was “impressed” and “agreed with most of the plans,” except for one, which proposed Germantown High and Fulton schools be used as senior citizen housing. She said she would rather see these used as educational spaces.
“They should do something for the kids in the high school [building], make it academic, arts or vocation related,” she said. “It could be used to educate children or for adults that didn’t finish high school.”
Professor Pablo Meninato said the students will use feedback from the community to revise the plans and create a “master plan of Germantown” that will be presented in December.
Other feedback voiced at the meeting, however, was centered more on action, rather than planning.
“This is the fourth time I’ve seen the same thing,” said Marcus Von Heppinstall, a Germantown Special Services District board member, referring to other community meetings that propose development plans. “We need something we can hold on to, something beneficial for immediate issues. These meetings are not getting anything done, except handing out a piece of paper.”
Heppinstall said an effective solution could come about if “politicians could work together for the same goal, for one unit, because Germantown is one unit. They should think about how they can come together and ask the same things the students are asking.”