Artist’s new show chronicles ongoing eminent domain struggle

Artist James Dupree stands next to part of his upcoming exhibit, "Stolen Dreams in the Promised Zone", at his studio in Mantua.
Artist James Dupree stands next to part of his upcoming exhibit, “Stolen Dreams in the Promised Zone”, at his studio in Mantua. The show opens Saturday, March 1st, at 703 S. 6th St. Credit: Charles Mostoller/Metro

James Dupree’s face is carved with wrinkles. Not long ago, he didn’t look this way.

“I’m an African American artist. There’s not too many of us. They don’t recognize us in their American history,” said Dupree, 64. “They’re killing my dreams. They don’t care how hard it is for African American artists to go to college.”

On Saturday, March 1 at Dupree’s gallery at 703 S. 6th St., Dupree will unveil “Stolen Dreams in the Promise Zone” — his artistic response, mostly created in the last two months, to the city’s attempts to seize his studio on Haverford Avenue.

A massive building that Dupree renovated himself and calls his “dream studio,” it’s just one of 17 parcels the city intends to seize, with financial compensation for owners, to build the planned Westview Plaza, which would include a large supermarket.

It’s also part of an area recently designated as one of President Obama’s five “Promise Zones”  in cities around the country, which provide grants and funding for certain types of business proposals.

“You’re gonna tell me what my property’s worth?” Dupree asked. “What’s that land going to be worth five years from now, 10 years from now? What’s the value for my family in the future?”

Dupree will show works including masks of uncertainty and depression, based on traditional African dogon masks and art of the Yoruba tribe. His art includes “subliminal” representations of racism -– as it appears to him in the real world, he said.

“I’m a tree. I’ll tell my story through my life experiences. Color is dance and music. I’m a colorist,” Dupree said.

The art show is a chronicle of the last seven years, since Dupree learned through conversations with City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, he said, that such a development could be coming soon. Around that time, he also suffered a stroke which caused a loss of function on the right side of his body, although he has since mostly recovered, he said.

Blackwell did not respond to requests for comment.

The Mantua Community Improvement Committee, which has been part of plans for Westview Plaza, did not respond to requests for comment on the project.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority offered Dupree $600,000 for his studio.

But Dupree previously had the studio appraised for $2.2 million, and put it on the retail market through Prudential. Dupree wants a better offer from the city for his studio, and said he doubts that Westview Plaza even has a real developer for the supermarket — although a reported $2.75 million in state subsidies will go towards the project.

“The Redevelopment Authority and representatives of Mr. Dupree are working toward an amicable resolution that will accommodate both Mr. Dupree’s needs and the desire to bring jobs and healthy, nutritious food to a neighborhood that needs both,” said Office of Community and Housing Development spokesman Paul Chrystie. “Talks are continuing with a developer (Westview and Aquinas) interested in the project.”

Dupree is being supported in his fight by an anonymous donor who is paying his legal fees, he said.

He’s also received support from the Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to private property rights.

“The city of Philadelphia is trying to take James Dupree’s beautifully renovated art studio through eminent domain to build a grocery store and parking lot. Eminent domain isn’t for private development,” said Institute for Justice activism manager Melinda Haring. “The U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania state constitution allow the state to take private property only when it’s for a public use, like roads and courts. Eminent domain for private development is unconstitutional and unconscionable.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Dupree moved to a South Philly housing project as a child, then moved in his with his grandparents in Bridgeville, Pa. as a teenager.

He received an MFA from UPenn and has worked at the Harlem Museum and Skowhegan, with pieces in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and work shown at the Philadelphia International Airport. He acquired his Mantua studio nine years ago.

He said he doesn’t oppose efforts to improve Mantua and provide new services for its residents — just the way the city is going about it.

“This is my museum. It’s what I’ve done with my little life,” Dupree said. “I can’t build this again.”

In April, Dupree said, he plans to open his studio up to the public for free so that he can share the thousands of artworks inside with the world, while he has it.

“People from this community never saw anything like this – and it’s right here in their neighborhood,” Dupree said.

Eminent domain: how it’s legal

Eminent domain allows governments to seize private property for a public use, like building a street or a telephone pole.

The Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo ruling found that Connecticut had the right to seize homeowner’s properties to build a Pfizer tower – which was ultimately never built, instead leaving a vacant lot.

Ironically, Pennsylvania passed Senate Bill 881 to restrict eminent domain seizures in 2005. But it didn’t go into effect until Dec. 31, 2012.

Dupree was notified of the seizure Dec. 27, 2012.

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