Deep rooted devotion: North Philly community-first venue Sunflower Hill belongs to the neighborhood

Melvin Powell and Asher Roth are one part of a communal effort to preserve a plot of highly developed North Philly property as a concert space, street art haven and community meeting house along Cecil B. Moore Ave. | Image: Kerith Gabriel

Instead, artists go down to this triangular section to paint the walls, gardeners go to plant flowers and the community comes simply to show love.

This plot sits as the Bermuda Triangle of the neighborhood, as it’s not quite Northern Liberties or Fishtown. It’s not Kensington or Fairhill either. Despite all of the development of both residential and mixed-use commercial spaces either standing or going up all around it, and realtors readily providing the designation as “Olde Kensington,” the venue’s definitive designation is that it firmly resides in North Philly.

What it’s called appropriately is Sunflower Philly, and like a flower that finds a way to sprout between the concrete slabs above, this once-cordoned off pit in the middle of a three-point intersection is quietly becoming the preeminent space for the community. The spot is the three-headed brainchild of partners Christian “TameArtz” Rodriguez, Melvin Powell and rapper Asher Roth, who conveniently lives in the arts house directly next door to the venue.

The idea? Keep one thing pure and authentic about a community overrun by development and gentrification that has made many parts of the area unrecognizable. More importantly, the 11,000 square-foot space serves as anything the community needs it to be. Concert venue for up and coming artists? Already done. A place to hold community meetings? Yep. A home for artists of all types to use the walls as a canvas for graffiti art? All of that.

“It’s our way of giving back to the community and understanding that we know that development is huge in this area,” said Powell, a Temple graduate and North Philly native, who also serves as both the operations manager for Sunflower Hill and as its director of partnerships. “We really wanted to come in and embrace what that area is. Graffiti is a huge piece of it. We wanted to make sure too that with Sunflower Philly, we still have that outlet for people so that even when the walls [along Cecil B. Moore] eventually do come down, there is still an outlet for people to come out and be able to express themselves creatively.”

The walls Powell referred to are the walls on the corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore that have long served as a canvas for graffiti artists not just from Philly but from all over the country. Many well-known artists from Los Angeles, New York and other cities have had pieces along those walls. Last year, it was reported that a group spearheaded by investor Chadwick Smith hopes to knock down those walls to make way for a 130-unit apartment complex complete with retail space below.

Collectively, the group has expressed their concerns about keeping something for the neighborhood and not treating this space as just another step-over. Working with Smith, Rodriguez, Powell and Roth secured Sunflower Philly as a place for the community, in an effort to bridge the divide that always stems from new residents moving in. In 2017 and 2018, before the space took on its current look following a high-priced renovation, the trio held a pair of block parties that have been attended with love by the surrounding community.

It was those events that proved to Roth that the fight to keep something for the community, from the community, was paramount.

“We realized we had something special here before that moment, but those events let us know that we were on the right way of thinking with this,” said Roth, who returned to Philly following a rap career that featured stints in Atlanta and Los Angeles. “[Sunflower Philly] is really centered around artist development and encouragement. It’s a place where you can go make mistakes and have some fun with whatever your craft is. Specifically for artists, this is a place for people who are kind of just getting started and want to try some things out and hopefully it can be a place that’s kind of free of judgment.”

A walk into Sunflower Hill is extremely inviting. For starters, there’s no gates or signs posted regarding entry. A grassy uphill berm separates the street level to the below floor where walls on either side showcase artwork from both everyday street artists and major players, who are given residency for a few weeks, sometimes months. The backdrop of a 15×15 foot stage is a hill laden with sunflowers, which was started with just one after Roth had a sunflower plant he transplanted into the dirt three years earlier.

Yes, the impetus of Sunflower Hill is both organic and grassroots in both literal and figurative form.

However, while many from the community have come out to show love for what this group is trying to do for the North Philly community in which it resides, they are all well aware that the process is going to be gradual and take some convincing that it’s not going to be the next thing that pushes the ideas of longtime residents out.

“This area is just so rich with people of color of all types,” Powell said. “You have African-American and Hispanic ideas on the North side, with this bustling trend of young, particularly white college graduates looking to move in and settle in. It is difficult in some sense to try to mend the gap between the old and the new because you have these older residents who aren’t naive to what’s going on. They see the development, they see new or newer people coming into the area. We’re right in the middle of all of that. So our approach is to focus on art, music and sustainability because those are all things that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. Those are things that can bring people together and unite them in a positive way.”

That mindset is proven at a glance of upcoming events scheduled for Sunflower Philly.

From a local music series kicking off on June 28, a Latin brunch scheduled in July, a goat yoga event in August and the third installment of the Sunflower Philly block party later this summer, the list is as eclectic as the clientele that frequent the space.

The group is also counting on its contacts across the industry to bring top talent into the venue in efforts to raise its awareness. One could argue that with the addition of nearby attractions like the Fillmore, the Met Philly and others that Sunflower Hill might be fighting an uphill battle to gain notoriety, but as Roth readily explains, this collective is going against the grain in the hopes that the neighborhood showing love for events and word of mouth will serve as the primary marketing.

“We’re not trying to compete with those guys,” Roth said. “Again, this is for the talented artists that can’t get into those venues. We’re looking at this from a very hyperlocal standpoint. Without getting into the social politics and socioeconomics of it, [our] space is about opportunity and kind of leveling the playing field because it’s impossible to compete against big money. This is very experimental and very much a small group of like-minded individuals that believe in open air green space and growing urban development the right way. We aren’t trying to make money of this. This is about keeping something authentic for the community, even if everything around it doesn’t look like.”

Feeling Roth’s vibe, Powell added his own stance.

“Frankly, we don’t want a space where residents of this community see people that don’t look like them and then they feel ostracized or left out of something in their own neighborhood,” he said. “There’s already too much around our community that feels disingenuous. Our goal is to make sure regardless of who walks into Sunflower Philly – rapper, artist, resident, anybody – that they’ll never feel that way.”


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