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Augmented Avenue: Memories of Lancaster Avenue

September 30, 2011

Drexel communications students recently paired up with residents of the Lancaster Avenue neighborhood and created Augmented Avenue: Memories of Lancaster, a collaborative art project for creative urban engagement that offers visitors a new way to experience the neighborhood. The students worked in partnership with members of the community who narrated their stories and memories, together co-authoring a dynamic portrait of local history.

Each student interpreted the experiences and co-created a photo and sound collage available through the smartphone. Their creations are now on display at 3820 Lancaster Avenue from through October 29, 2011 as part of the LOOK! On Lancaster Avenue Arts Project, sponsored by the City of Philadelphia’s ReStore Corridors Through Art program.

Led by Hana Iverson, the director of the Neighborhood Narratives project, this class project was sponsored by Drexel’s Center for Mobilities Research and Policy Center (mCenter). Iverson is a media artist whose projects span intermedia platforms and contexts, incorporating mobile narrative, augmented reality and interactive installation. The students include Alan Masse, Andrew Leiser, Aviva Linksman, Caitlin Bookman, Elizabeth Miller, Francesca Martelli, John Chagaris, Kerry Handschuh, Lily Strater and Melissa Reilly.

"I was very lucky to work with George Stevens on this project. George grew up in this community and lives here now. His pride, dedication, and responsibility to the community have given me a newfound appreciation for Powelton. Before working with George, I knew very little about the culture and history of the area in which I live, but now I too feel a sense of pride for my neighborhood. Though I did not grow up here, I do consider this ‘home’ and my experience in working with Augmented Avenue has been incredibly enriching.”   
Lizz Miller, junior

Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s vice provost for University and Community Relations, introduced the class to some key partners. Central to the experience was George Stevens, who organized all the neighborhood participants, Joe McNulty (University City District) and James Wright (People’s Emergency Center), who very generously came to the class to share their expertise about the neighborhood and took the students for a detailed walking tour of Lancaster Avenue.

“The Augmented Avenue project took me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to a part of Philadelphia that I hadn’t previously gotten the opportunity to experience. As someone who typically stays within the confines of Drexel University and Center City Philadelphia, venturing into Lancaster Avenue was a stretch for me. However … I came out of the experience with an array of knowledge about the history of Lancaster Avenue, an idea of how the area operates in present day and valuable information about augmented reality and combining actual places and media experiences into one. Because of this project, I am no longer hesitant to venture past Drexel’s lines and into West Philadelphia.” 
Caitlin Bookman, senior

The project utilized Zooburst, a digital storytelling tool, as a simple way to create custom augmented reality experiences that can be viewed on a mobile device, such as an Android or iPhone. ZooBurst was created by Craig Kapp, an interactive developer who has spent a decade working to find ways to bring cutting-edge digital technologies into educational settings. He helped the class realize their vision.

“Augmented Avenue has piqued my interest in local history. My initial impressions of the project were that of excitement and curiosity. I had heard the tech scene buzzword ‘Augmented Reality’ and was interested in its capability to change the way we educate ourselves and view our surroundings. Yet I had not considered its implications within the art world, nor fully realized the extent of our project. I enjoy viewing and creating art that has purpose. I feel that through the use of new technology we can share purposeful, deliberate creative experience in an exciting new medium.”
Lily Strater, senior

The community participants and co-creators of the project include people like Bishop Barnes, who was born in 1941 and is a native of North Carolina where he grew up, attended college and seminary school. In 1966 he joined the Church of Faith under the guidance of Elder McBay and in 2000 he was consecrated Bishop. Ethel Briscoe was born and raised in North Philadelphia. She spent most of her working life as a teacher’s aide in the Philadelphia school system. Kids are a big part of her life, as she has six children, 25 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. Joel Spivak was born on 41st and Cambridge streets in Philadelphia. He is currently converting an old church on Lancaster Avenue into an art gallery. His stories about the avenue are endless and his knowledge of the area, immense.

“Neighborhood narratives allowed me the opportunity to explore a neighborhood typically I would never have entered and in doing so introduced me to the vast charm, charisma of a growing diverse population who are very proud of where they came from. Bishop Barnes, a truly amazing man, showed a window of community involvement and pride where Pastor Nichols introduced me to the personal human element. It was through these two men and their stories that allowed me to experience an evolving neighborhood on personal terms and in the end changed the way I perceive a Philadelphia neighborhood.” 
Andrew Leiser, senior

Each narrated memory of a place is tied to a corresponding location on Lancaster Avenue, where the recollections and anecdotes are layered into the specific locations of memory using posters and maps with phone-readable codes. The project facilitates new forms of collective participation and collaboration between itinerant viewers and their surroundings, capturing the experience of an evolving community. But beyond that it also facilitates new forms of personal engagement by Drexel students in the community in which they live and work, as well as an introduction of community members to their neighbors at Drexel.

Dr. Mimi Sheller, director of the mCenter at Drexel