Creative Placemaking

A house, a hearth and a home for community at the Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden

Photos by Nancy Chen

Photos by Nancy Chen

By Nancy Chen

On quiet Philip Street in Norris Square, just west of Fishtown and Kensington, artist Pedro Ospina began a project to build his house in 2010, working with friends and neighbors. 

While building both the structure and relationships in his community, he realized that it had become an art project in and of itself: The house was both a physical and a social sculpture. 

“It really changed the way I saw art,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘This house will sustain me, whereas art so often can’t.’ Once I finished that project, where the theme was shelter, my next idea was to do a project about food.”

Ospina, who is of Colombian heritage and first came to Philadelphia in 1989, is now organizing a community space called the Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden, transforming a vacant lot, once littered with garbage, into a verdant green space and community gathering spot filled with colorful and eclectic forms contributed by different artists.

His vision is to use art to sustain the community in multiple ways: The fresh vegetables grown in the garden would sustain by providing food; the artful setting with original sculptures would build and sustain community, inviting friends and neighbors to come together.

Now, every Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m., the garden hosts a potluck open to all. At a recent gathering, a group of 15 friends and neighbors shared dinner: smoke from baking pizza wafted from a clay oven that Ospina had built by hand. Hot slices topped with tomatoes and herbs from the garden were passed around. At the nearby fire pit, another guest, an iron welder by day, tended to a makeshift grill, slow roasting strips of beef and sharing homemade wine.

The garden has also become a venue for movie screenings and live music performances; some neighbors use the space to cook bread and to hang homemade sausages to dry. Upcoming events include a block party featuring local vendors, skill-share workshops, a plant soundscape and a Halloween party. 

Ospina continues to add new sculptures while leaving the space open to what the community wants to bring in. He’d also like to install solar energy panels. 

Justin Trezza, former executive director of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, which holds the deed to the lot (it’s one of several on Philip Street that had become trash-dumping grounds), credits Ospina with doing the outreach to build a sense of community ownership. 

“[Pedro] is the one who got the buy-in from neighbors and convinced them to give their time and effort to help clean it up. What was waste was transformed into treasure,” said Trezza.

The residents of the block expressed their warm support for Ospina as well. Sue Ellen, a mother with two young daughters, said of the garden, “My girls love it, and I love it.” Sonia Rodriguez, who has lived on the block for 10 years and helped to clean up the lot, agrees. “Everyone gets together there for the music and movies. The park is also great for the kids in the neighborhood,” she said. “It gives more life.”