On a chilly November night on a pedestrian bridge between the city of Chester and the campus of Widener University, Mike Forney spoke out. He was among a group that had gathered for Poetic Bridges, the kickoff of a joint project to unite the campus and the city through creative arts events. The Walnut Street bridge spans the campus and city over I-95 and symbolizes the great divide: it has long been locked by the campus at night.
“I always felt I wanted to voice my opinion about the bridge being locked, and this was my opportunity,” Forney said of the poetry event that launched “Boundaries and Bridges,” a collaborative project of reconciliation.
Forney grew up in Chester—in the economically disadvantaged and crime-plagued neighborhood across the highway from Widener. The Walnut Street bridge was the quickest and safest way home from school. But it was locked on the campus side because “they didn’t want us as a part of the community,” said Forney, 47, now a father of four. “I resented it.”
Boundaries and Bridges is designed to heal wounds like Forney’s and create a community in which students, faculty and residents transcend the boundaries, real and imagined, that separate town and gown. “We want to dispel myths on both sides and develop a strong relationship between the university and the city,” said Devon Walls, a community activist who runs the Artist Warehouse in Chester. Walls is partnering with Sharon M. Meagher, Ph.D., Dean of Widener’s College of Arts & Sciences, to implement the project.
Walls is a Chester native who also had his own unfortunate experience with Widener. “They said I couldn’t come to the library,” he said. “I was 14 or 15 years old. That had an impact on me. The message was that I wasn’t allowed on campus.’
Dr. Meagher, who conceived Boundaries and Bridges with Walls, wants to change all that. “Widener is a metropolitan anchor institution and our core values are civic engagement,” said Dr. Meagher. “If we’re going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk and develop a democratic partnership, which requires we develop community relationships.”
Utilizing civic arts methodologies, the partners will identify and then bridge community-university boundaries in order to strengthen and support collaboration in Chester. After a series of workshops to lay the groundwork for the collaboration, there are plans for photography workshops, a mural project, spoken word and theater performances and other cultural events on both sides of the bridge. Similar arts methodologies have been utilized elsewhere, but not in the combination nor for the purpose envisioned by this project.
Boundaries and Bridges builds on the momentum of Chester Made, an urban planning process designed to reverse Chester’s decline, coordinated by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council with support from Widener. That project uses art to heal and engage the community and envisions the creation of a mile-long arts and culture corridor in the heart of town with shops, galleries and restaurants. Boundaries and Bridges is designed to address the divide between campus and city that’s seen as a potential obstacle to the efforts of Chester Made. Boundaries and Bridges also comes as the city is readying a new zoning map and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is completing plans for the reconstruction of the bridges that connect Widener to Chester’s downtown business district. The stories will be documented and will provide data both for future artistic interventions and policy, zoning and infrastructure recommendations. This unique initiative could be a model for other schools to unite campus and city through the arts.
The sun was going down on the Walnut Street bridge as Poetic Bridges ended with Mike Forney’s essay. As a youth, he said, he saw the bridge as “my passage to hope and opportunity. You can make it to the other side of the bridge. When you lock the bridge, you tell me there’s no hope for me.”