These black neighborhoods are rich in arts and culture — and they’re thriving

They have, literally, made their names on the ground.

In the same Philadelphia neighborhood where the Apollo Theater is located, South Philly Jazz is a nonprofit that teaches music to low-income children in the area. Bonton Park is home to a South Philadelphia Community Center, the Community School for the Deaf, and a number of other programs and organizations. And Henry Street is home to a number of private schools and an arts incubator that makes music education accessible to students of all backgrounds.

Their common thread: They are all located in the historically black neighborhoods known as “historic” black communities (HBCs).

“If you look at black history, it starts in the neighborhood,” said Sheila Johnson, founder of the Henry Street Arts Center, an arts incubator that offers hands-on music and drama classes to students, in a recent interview.

Black neighborhoods also often have deep histories of arts and culture. This past summer, years before any sizable housing revival was in sight, Morgan State University opened a new $15 million music building, the Morgan State Institute for Music and Performing Arts, which houses a number of programs, including an international music festival and a graduate conservatory program.

Just across the street is a former African-American college, Morgan State University, and also a car dealership, where—in addition to providing a space for local businesses—Washington Art Garage, a nonprofit that showcases creative works in the HBC community, has been working with local artists for 10 years to gather artifacts for a collective exhibit.

“If you had been in this neighborhood in the ’50s, it wasn’t like it is now,” said Daniel Leeper, who grew up in Chestnut Hill, and now serves as the executive director of the Henry Street Arts Center. “It was typical. You would see these pockets of black culture with a small side of commercial businesses — the buildings were not as well-maintained.”

Now, however, said Leeper, “the culture has exploded, with so many young people trying to be artists, starting businesses, and doing fantastic things for the community.”

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