Germantown Town Hall has been vacant and abandoned since 1998. As part of the Hidden City Festival, the surrounding community has been invited inside to place its mark on the crumbling structure.
The Festival is helping bring attention to the building, and fostering to a sense of community by inviting the public to shape the space. Artists have transformed Germantown Town Hall, a dilapidated, abandoned and forgotten place, into a platform for community involvement and engagement.
I went to visit Germantown Town Hall on Saturday and experienced an unexpected outpouring of public activity and excitement. I chatted with a few residents from the Germantown area and they expressed delight for the new shared spaces created by the Festival. Neighbors, initially drawn in out of curiosity about inside of the structure, have been using the building for community events and creating a new sense of place. Residents are encouraged to schedule meetings for clubs and to utilize the rooms in any way they want.
When I visited midday, residents were walking around and adding to the installations set up in the various rooms. Many club meetings and activities are scheduled to take place throughout the upcoming weeks. Items listed on the calendar were for a school performance, movie screening and a trumpet player performance.
The main hall, the first room visitors enter when they climb the grand exterior stairs, sets the stage for the rest of the rooms. The beauty of the classic revival details on the underside of the dome still shine through the years of grime and peeling paint chips. Here a knitting club was gathering as other residents were scheduling events of their own.
Hidden City volunteers, and Oakland-based conceptual artist Jacob Wick, and art/community engagement collective the Think Tank that has yet to be named, have completely cleaned up the first floor. The building has been transformed from empty forgotten spaces into meeting rooms for the community and launching points for public discussion and input. Temporarily dubbed Germantown City Hall, the building will be open to the public Thursdays-Sundays until June 30th.
Every room is an opportunity for civic engagement. Bulletin boards and chalkboards present the history of the area and encourage residents to add their own thoughts and memories. The installation pieces featured in the rooms invite and inspire the residents of Germantown to verbalize what they value in their community and what matters most.
A resource room located off the left of the main hall has become a place where residents bring their own photos of the community to display and share. Across the hall, another room features an asset mapping project and visitors are asked to add to the map to highlight the cultural and historical places located in the surrounding community that are important to them. A historical timeline is set up in yet another room and residents are encouraged to add their reflections and stories from the past. Colored post-it notes and pens are readily available to allow residents to add their ideas or memories to all of the installations.
The last room at the end of the hall houses an intact remnant of another era. It is an untouched office from when the building still functioned as city headquarters. Desks, chairs and office documents are discarded on the floor and litter the room. This room has intentionally been left in disrepair to give a nod to the buildings past.
Since the building opened to the public there seems to be a high level community involvement. Hidden City volunteers told me said that the past few weeks have been very busy at the festival site, energized by the activity the community has brought to the spaces. Engaged community members are meeting, some for the first time, and Germantown City Hall has provided a platform for their voices.
Amanda Mazie was a graduate intern at PlanPhilly (2012-2013). She is a full time student at the University of Pennsylvania where she is a candidate for a Dual Master of City Planning and Master of Science in Historic Preservation. She recently graduated from Northeastern University where she received a B.S. in Architecture with a minor in Urban Studies.