PHILADELPHIA — The bus dropped me off a block away from 22nd Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, where Community Futures Lab is located. A metallic-red, heart-shaped balloon tied to a chalkboard announcing the grand opening bobbed cheerily in the wind. A couple of smiling skaters sat outside the storefront, and a chubby toddler ambled through the entrance, under ghostly peeling letters that indicated the storefront’s former occupants: a pawnshop.
Black Quantum Futurism (BQF), along with the AfroFuturist Affair, both activist-oriented collectives celebrating and disseminating black science fiction culture, has opened a community resource space envisioned as a “time capsule” in Sharswood/Blumberg. The North Philly neighborhood has seen much socioeconomic strife over the years and is now undergoing a $526 million dollar redevelopment project that cleared thousands of residential units via eminent domain. The Community Futures Lab was created in response to this reality and is also asking the neighborhood what potential needs the lab can fulfill, from organizing housing resources workshops and skill-sharing panels to zine brunches and yoga classes. Located next to Temple University, the blocks around the lab are tempting land grabs for thirsty real estate developers — in this case, the Philadelphia Housing Authority — who want to wipe the slate clean of the poverty and inequality that have long plagued the area. But the city neglects to consider the chaos that the displacement of human beings and communities causes to the residents who are uprooted. Personal stakes are ignored and buried under the rubble in the name of profitability.
Black Quantum Futurism encompasses the work of the lawyer-activist-writer Rasheedah Phillips and musician-designer-photographer Camae Ayewa, as well as the efforts of others who have collaborated with the two artists. Phillips is the founder of the AfroFuturist Affair and published the Black Quantum Futurism manifesto, which proposes a creative and critical vision that values and rewrites black diasporic history through an Afrofuturist lens. She has participated in The Shadows Took Shape, the group exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem that explored Afrofuturist aesthetics, as well as the yearlong Octavia Butler celebration at Clockshop in Los Angeles. Ayewa performs and tours as Moor Mother, a solo music project creating memorial soundscapes and what she calls “slaveship punk,” and cofounded Rockers! Philly, a festival devoted to marginalized artists.
In addition to her artistic practice, Phillips is the managing attorney for the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which ties her intimately to the concerns of locals who are left helpless in the state of the current housing crisis. She also attended Temple University for both her BA and JD, and has lived about 10 blocks from Community Futures Lab for the last six years. Phillips says, “utilize me,” and wants her neighbors to know that she has a stake in Sharswood/Blumsberg and intends to facilitate change through civic engagement.
To kick off Community Future Lab’s opening, Phillips read her definition of “future,” published in Keywords for Radicals (AK Press, 2016), which included many references from Afrofuturism, science fiction, black history, quantum physics, Western artistic movements, and beyond. Phillips and Ayewa’s project “Community Futures: Time & Memory in North Philly,” supported by a fellowship from A Blade of Grass, continues the programming thread initiated by the AfroFuturist Affair by offering workshops like quantum event mapping, which asks participants to let go of notions of linear time in their creative writing, and “Science is Fiction!” which examines how women and people of color are shown in mainstream science fiction and shares examples from Afrofuturist texts that can empower the marginalized. Seeking to positively change the physical landscape and protect the psychological landscape of North Philly, the BQF collective and the space’s interns are also collecting “oral history/future interviews” from former and current residents of Sharswood/Blumberg.
Throughout Phillips’s performance, Moor Mother supplied a musical accompaniment: a fuzzy radio-electronic set that hypnotically traversed space, time, and the present reality. Phillips’s voice was clear, full of conviction, and the support from the crowd was palpable. Afterward, people milled about the space, perusing the bookshelves of the lending library, sipping refreshments, chatting, and popping into the back rooms to record their memories of North Philadelphia and watch the looped footage of March’s demolition of the Norman Blumberg towers, which put hundreds of families out of their homes.
As the Community Futures Lab launches its initial six-month run, it plans to collaborate with other North Philadelphia-based arts organizations, such as The People’s Paper Co-op of the Village of Arts & Humanities. This is not the first time an artistic group has targeted discrimination and gentrification in specific communities; initiatives in other cities include Decolonize L.A. and El Museo de los Sures in New York. However, Community Futures Lab is unique for its specific Afrofuturist vision, one that does not elevate above those who need and crave it the most, and that transfers a complex theory to an engaged, critical practice.
Community Futures Lab is located at 2204 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia. With the assistance of volunteers, the space will be open a few days a week and most Saturdays. Check for Community Future Labs and Black Quantum Futurism updates on Facebook. Instagram: @communityfutureslab and @blackquantumfuturism.