Project Note: Marty

Project Note: Marty
The Canopy—Marty Pottenger and the Significance of a Tree Story
by Najja Zimele-Keita​ 

Marty Pottenger is a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Artist/Thinker. Project Notes document and articulate Marty's process and engagement with Philadelphia as she develops new work that will be presented here in April 2016.

Najja Zimele-Keita​ reflects on Marty Pottenger’s inquiry into Philadelphia’s trees and the historical and contemporary resonances of green spaces in urban life.


An amazing privilege of living in Philadelphia is the wealth of natural spaces contained within its borders. I’ve lived in close proximity to Fairmount Park my entire life and while I have long enjoyed its wealth of green spaces, I have only recently begun to understand how unique and meaningful that is for urban citizens.

During one of her trips to the Bride, Re-PLACE-ing Artist/Thinker Marty Pottenger began asking members of the staff to tell her their tree stories. Was there a tree that they could remember as significant, special, a place of play or refuge at some point in their life? Not trivial, but perhaps at first a mundane question, yet one whose responses indicate how deeply its implications run.

Not merely an aesthetic consideration, proximity and relationship to green spaces open onto so many concerns about modern life in this country.

One of the perks of my capacity in this project is spending time with the artists, showing (and discovering with) them the Philadelphia of the many. Earlier this year, we found ourselves in search of a Lenape burial ground believed to be hidden by the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway. Marty let the dog run while she and I discovered an amazing corner of Fairmount Park just beyond the Japanese Tea House. Leaves slick with rain underfoot, we walked carefully through the park, imagining the world of the people who were here before William Penn.

The Lenape and their relationship with the natural world lay the groundwork for Marty’s Re-PLACE-ing inquiry and the development of a theme within the project. Their life-world is deeply affected and molded by the Delaware Valley’s waterways, flora and fauna. Our green spaces are a legacy the region’s Lenape ancestors have left us. To say the least, we live very differently than they did, our lives ceaselessly noisy and distracting. We’ll never return to it, but what can we learn from that time?

Regarding my concerns about modern life in America, I am so often struck by what wealth and privilege mean for access, to natural space or otherwise. Think about the property values of the real estate surrounding Central Park, but I want to look beyond that, to the grey areas and liminal spaces. I am continually intrigued by poor and working class Philadelphians, in particular, who subvert the growing privilege to green space trope. I think of the men I see fishing at Henry Ave. and West River Drive; pre-teen bike crews, wheelie-ing down the Drive, the family reunions and church picnics at the ubiquitous “Plat” (aka the Belmont Plateau); and the Fletcher St. Horsemen who stable horses in Strawberry Mansion and race them all through Fairmount Park.

With one very simple question, Marty Pottenger has opened up an amazing range of possibilities for Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, in the form of our stories. They are the ever expanding history of Philadelphia that I hope this project can begin to excavate. A true people’s history, melodic, richly hued and textured, as surprising as teenagers on horseback at Broad and Erie.

Najja Zimele-Keita is the Re-PLACE-ing Project Coordinator.

Project Notes Marty
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