- Associated Press - Friday, June 20, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Artists, in search of cheap studio space and undeterred by a little grit, have long been seen as urban pioneers, even forerunners of gentrification.

So, theoretically, an over-the-top art show could be just the thing to jump-start a new development in a challenging neighborhood.

This weekend, that theory will be tested at Force Field Project, a two-day festival of installation art, concerts, and dance parties at MaKen Studios, two enormous, grimy factories that are being renovated into studio, fabrication, and live-work spaces.

Organizers hope the event will bring more than a thousand artists and fans to the impoverished and crime-ridden Harrowgate section of Kensington - and maybe turn some of them into future tenants.

The project is the brainchild of two Philadelphia artists, Joe Bartram and Tim Eads, with support from CultureTrust and donated space from Shift Capital, the real estate start-up that owns the buildings.

Cait Kenny, project manager for MaKen North (3525 I St.) and MaKen South (3401 I St.), which together total 250,000 square feet, said the negotiations were simple. “Force Field wanted to take a risk, and we were like, ‘That’s cool.’ “

For Shift, she said, there are numerous benefits: “bringing energy to the building, and exposure to the Kensington neighborhood… . Seeing who the artists are out there, and how we can get them in the building and retain them in Philadelphia. And lastly, it’s going to be fun.”

Events like this have been part of Shift’s strategy from the start. Kenny was first hired as a part-time event planner, tasked with activating the raw space as it was being partitioned into white-walled studios.

Shift partner Imar Hutchins said the company’s goals required a fresh approach.

“Hopefully, this is a new model, where it’s not just asking artists to blaze a trail in the neighborhood and then get them out and get someone else to pay more, but to create long-term affordable space for them,” he said. “We’re trying to build a creative ecosystem that’s self-sustaining.”

That includes offering a range of spaces, from 300-square-foot studios for $250 per month up to 20,000-square-foot manufacturing spaces, depending on the tenant’s needs.

And it includes trying to help stabilize the neighborhood, much as the factories did in their heyday.

Before MaKen North was vacated, it had been a textile mill, then an after-dinner-mint factory, then a Jomar fabric warehouse. MaKen South was partly occupied by a screen-printing supplier when Shift bought it in January.

Kenny said she’s working with Kensington Renewal and the New Kensington Community Development Corp. to clean vacant lots and create safe corridors in the neighborhood, particularly on the route to the nearby Tioga stop on the Market-Frankford El. She’s also connecting with local businesses like Diamond Furniture, which wants to create an American-made product showroom that could provide a retail outlet for MaKen tenants.

But first, they need tenants. (The buildings are about 27 percent occupied.) That’s where Eads and Bartram come in.

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