STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Eminent domain — sometimes referred to as “land grabbing” — is about as serious as it gets.
It is when a government seizes a deed and condemns a property in the name of constructing something for public use like a road, a sewer treatment facility, a park, a trail or a school. But according to Philadelphia artist James Dupree, 67, the City of Philadelphia abused its authority when it officially issued a declaration of taking on his studio in 2012.
“All of this is a result of somebody telling me they were gonna take my land,” Dupree told a class of Montgomery County Community College art students on Oct. 13. He was referring to the exhibition “Stolen Dreams from the Promised Zone,” which is on display through Nov. 4 at the college’s Fine Arts Center Gallery, near the DeKalb Pike entrance to the MCCC Central Campus in Whitpain.
The angst-riddled mixed media pieces have titles like “No Plan to Give My Deed Back,” “F U Who Do You Think You Are?,” “Effects of Gentrification — Stolen Culture” and “Effects of the Green-Eyed Monster.”
“It almost killed me,” he said. “It was daily bombardment.”
Dupree, whose works are in the collections of 25 different museums around the world, made a considerable investment renovating a warehouse in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philly, transforming a dilapidated building into classrooms and studio space in 2005. The artist said he spent $68,000 on roof repairs alone, and expanded an 8,690-square-foot building to 10,000 square feet by adding a second floor.
The city, however, had other plans. According to the narrative on www.savedupreestudios.org, under a Choice Neighborhood Initiative plan created by President Obama, Mantua was named a “promise zone” by the city. The promise zone designation meant eligibility for a gold mine of federal funding, grants and tax incentives for redevelopment. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority seized the deed to the studio, with the intent of removing the building and replacing it with a grocery store and parking lot.
Dupree recalled that the city had not even publicly identified a developer, and when he protested that the long-talked-about grocery store did not constitute the definition of public use, one city councilwoman berated him with the words: “Who do you think you are, the Black Picasso?”
One of his benefactors supplied a lawyer. And with the help of a grass roots campaign, the support of organizations such as Citizens Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse, and national and international media attention, Dupree successfully saved his studio from the eminent domain claim.
Along the way, “I healed myself through the art,” said Dupree, whose neighborhood nickname is now Black Picasso.
A documentary film of the saga, “Broken Dreams: The Man I Always Wanted to Be,” which was screened Oct. 13 at the college, is a collaboration between filmmakers Tyrone Brown and MCCC alumnus Joseph Sapienza. Sapienza, who works for NFL Films, co-directed the MCCC 50th anniversary documentary “The History of Montco” when he was a student.
“You can see James’ studio from Mars. It’s become a landmark,” said Brown, who had been speaking to video production, political science and psychology classes at MCCC with Sapienza about their film.
“When we filmed his interview, it was four hours (long),” Sapienza said of Dupree’s loquacious personality.
The duo said “Broken Dreams” took four years to make and they plan to screen it at other colleges and show it on the film festival circuit.
Although the redevelopment authority ended its condemnation proceedings, and returned the rights of the property to Dupree in 2014, he said the struggle is not completely over, and claims the city is badgering him with an inflated bill for back property taxes.
Dupree said the law states he cannot sue the city over the eminent domain drama, but at least there’s the “Stolen Dreams from the Promised Zone” artwork serving as a cautionary tale. “I’m an artist — I’m gonna show you my pain and suffering,” he said.