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City Hall Presents: Moving With The Sounds Of The People

December 7, 2012

CityHallPresents01smallText by Sofiya Ballin. Images by Michael Bucher.

Alice Rader points toward the Second Empire-style clock tower while Ursula Rucker recites poetry on a small stage.

“Look at where we are!” Rader yells. “That’s awesome! I can look out and see Broad Street!”

She sits in the City Hall courtyard for the Peace Is A Haiku Song: Sonia Sanchez & Friends event, featuring Sanchez, Rucker, Chill Moody and others as part of the City Hall Presents series. The courtyard is filled with citizens across demographic lines, joined together to celebrate and absorb Philly talent, for free.

The ability to simultaneously listen to Rucker eloquently recite spoken word as the sun sets and monitor the traffic on Broad Street creates a unique and captivating combination.

“It’s a beautiful night and it makes me feel a part of the city,” says Rader, 67. “It makes me feel connected to the community.”

CityHallPresents03smallA few days prior, event organizer, Josh Dubin, sits in La Calombe Café. He’s dressed casually and sports sneakers. His laid back, easy-going demeanor seems contradictory for someone involved with politics.

“People’s perception of City Hall is not always the best,” he says. “Sometimes they’re there to pay a fine or for jury duty.”

Dubin grew up outside of Boston and moved to Philly to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied political science and music.

“I fell in love with the city,” he says. “It’s very walkable and I love the music scene.”

Now, he is the special projects coordinator for the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy (OACCE). He also helps organize Blocktoberfest, an annual beer and music street party on South Street.

“I have seen the live music scene explode venuewise,” he says. “I’ve noticed a trend overall to take more pride of what goes on in the city musicwise.”

When Mayor Nutter proposed the idea of showcasing Philly talent in City Hall, he contacted Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer, who knew the project was right up Dubin’s alley.

“Josh is great to oversee this because of his experience producing Blocktoberfest,” Steuer says. “His ease with social media also allows him to do an excellent job of promotion.”

City Hall Presents showcases the spectrum of the city’s performing arts in the often overlooked spaces of City Hall – the courtyard, the mayor’s reception room, conversation hall, the law library and elsewhere. The goal is to inspire citizens to become involved in the performing arts, Dubin explains.

Each show is free and open to the public. Often during the courtyard performances, citizens coming off the Broad Street Line find themselves literally walking right into a concert.

“We want to portray the performing arts not just as something that is a luxury in the city or an accessory to a great city,” Dubin explains, “but as something that is a critical part of city life.”

The series gives citizens a chance to become acquainted with the largest municipal building in the United States, a historical gem right in their backyard.

“The mayor’s reception room is nine times out of 10 where you go to hear a press conference,” Dubin says. “It’s crammed full of reporters and people taking notes. The walls are filled with portraits of mayors from the past. I love the idea that somehow all these old mayors are looking down in the room, having an opportunity during City Hall Presents to see something they’ve probably never seen before.”

Dubin’s voice fills with passion, competing with the others in the café as he clarifies.

“The arts have the power to transform space and perception of space,” he concludes.

After a request for artists went out in October 2011, the city received more than 200 applications from arts organizations and artists who wanted to perform in the building. Dubin and his team planned 24 events for the year.

“We’ve had gospel music, circus performers doing aerial acrobatics, comedians and flamenco,” Dubin says.

In addition to Sonia Sanchez, Ursula Rucker and Chill Moody, City Hall has hosted children from the Philly Youth Poetry Movement, the Kyo Daiko taiko drummers, drag queen/cabaret performer Martha Graham Cracker, Project Capoeira, Ali Wadsworth, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and much more.

“The hardest part has been just trying to get in as much as we can, trying to capture a little bit of everything.” Dubin says. “Different neighborhoods, different disciplines, different styles and genres of art that fully represents a broad diversity of the city’s style and ethnic disciplines.”

The series presents strictly Philly talent.

CityHallPresents02small“We want these shows to inspire people to become patrons of the arts and follow up on those interests to be exposed to new groups and new talents in the city,” Dubin says.

Thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, the series pays artists up to $500 per event.

“Artists have jobs like everyone else,” Dubin says firmly. “Our office represents artists. They’re our constituency. We believe that artists should be paid.”

Investing in the arts is proving to be vital to Philadelphia’s economy. According to OACCE’s research, arts, culture and creative industries are responsible for one in 15 jobs in the city. If treated as a single sector, it would rank as the 4th largest employer after health care, education and retail.

“Arts and culture have a fantastic economic impact on the city,” Dubin says. “It’s an amazing force for development for business attraction, for residential attraction and quality of life.”

However, Dubin emphasizes that the focus on the arts goes past economic gain. Through arts and culture, people grow from an intellectual and emotional perspective, as well as artistic.

“The arts provide something that goes beyond a dollar figure,” he says.

As the café closes, Dubin walks to Rittenhouse Square Park, parking himself on the nearest bench.  As someone who sang in high school and goes to at least one concert a week, he has a sense of expertise when discussing his favorite bands, his fandom for Philly music becoming clear. He lists Sun Airway, Dr.Dog, Cheers Elephant and Toy Soldiers among his favorites.

Dubin is proud that the City Hall Presents series has become popular, and that the city will continue the program.

“That to me says more about the city’s commitment to the arts,” he says. “It’s one thing to talk about how important the arts are to the city. It’s another thing to bring it into the people’s building. City Hall is literally singing, speaking and moving with the people’s voice.”

  1. michellesaya permalink
    December 7, 2012 5:02 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article Sofiya and JUMPPhilly. It is wonderful that this is happening and what struck out to me the most is that the artists performing are being compensated for their time! Artists do deserve to be compensated for their extremely meaningful contribution to the community. I am glad it is being recognized and supported.


  1. City Hall Presents | S o f i y a B a l l i n

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