Free Flow

An abandoned building becomes a hub for social activism in West Philadelphia
by Natalie Hope McDonald


Just off the Number 10 Green Line, west of the sprawling Penn and Drexel campuses and trendy restaurants, past the tiny street corner bodegas and dimly lit bars, a group of aspiring social activists saw something special in an abandoned building at 41st and Lancaster Ave. Up for sheriff’s sale a decade ago, the dilapidated storefront dating back to the 1920s had been taken over by squatters and musicians who mostly borrowed the neglected space for band rehearsals and impromptu powwows.

The floors may have been rotted, the windows were broken and the roof leaked, but the property seemed the perfect place to start a revolution. Inspired by similar efforts by New York’s ABC No Rio, a graffiti-covered community center on the Lower East Side, and the European squats movement, dedicated to reclaiming abandoned buildings, Philly’s own grassroots social activists had a plan to rebuild the space into a salon for free thinkers. After countless art auctions, bake sales, movie nights and benefit concerts, the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Zone, Inc. (or LAVA for short) purchased the property and spent the next several years turning it into the LAVA Zone, an independent collective operated exclusively by volunteers.

“We realized that a lot of organizations spend a lot of time raising money to pay for rent,” says Jay Sand, one of the original founders and a longtime volunteer at LAVA Zone. “We wanted to pull some resources together and develop a space that would be low-cost for organizations that don’t have the money. We wanted to create a physical space to connect with each other.”

Physically rebuilding a neglected property on the city’s fringe was only the beginning of the center’s community outreach. There aren’t many rules at LAVA, but an important one is that anyone involved must somehow contribute to the surrounding neighborhood in a positive way, whether by feeding the hungry, teaching a workshop or volunteering in the center’s computer lab or radical library, where books by Noam Chomsky, Joseph Stalin and Charles Bukowski line the shelves.

Today, the collective houses almost a dozen activist organizations and alliances, like Act Up, Human Rights Coalition and Philadelphia Anarchist Black Cross Federation, as well as the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia, Taxi Workers’ Alliance, the Green Party and Rizumu, a monthly techno party for vegans, to name just a few. There’s also an ongoing effort to showcase installations by local artists, many of which incorporate eco-friendly and found materials, including wheat-pasted posters, mosaics made from recycled tile and glass, and a solar-powered sculpture. Each month, local graffiti artists also create new politically charged works in the space.

“It’s a work in progress,” admits Sand. “One of the reasons we call it LAVA is we like the image—not of destruction, but of movement and progress and flow, of going somewhere.”

There’s been a steady stream of workshops, events, benefits, screenings, protests, potlucks and parties at the center, which makes office space available for like-minded groups and supports a community kitchen where Food Not Bombs regularly distributes free food to nearby residents. Operating funds, says Sand, are offset through charitable donations and by “passing the hat” at special events open to the public each week. You may walk into a freestyle dance show on Friday, a Defenestrator meeting on Tuesday or Thursday’s prison letter-writing night.

“It’s hard to characterize what impact one tiny little place has on the larger community,” says Sand, but LAVA invites neighbors to participate in events, go online and borrow educational materials. “We hope to positively impact a lot of individuals,” he adds, in a pay-it-forward fashion. “We’re not getting in the way of what’s happening in the neighborhood. We want to be another resource. We contribute where we can and enhance what people are already doing.”

LAVA Zone, 4134 Lancaster Ave., 215-387-6155 www.lavazone.org