Creating an Oasis In Overbrook

Creating an Oasis In Overbrook


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The property at 6134 Lancaster Avenue is now open and in operation. It uses passive solar energy panels to heat their water system.



Creating an Oasis in Overbrook   

By Junious Ricardo Stanton


The difference between a visionary and a dreamer is the visionary uses his or her imagination as a template to fashion something new, to see possibilities and potential in existing situations and conditions others don’t. He or she then galvanizes the needed support, energy, will and focus to make it a reality. A dreamer merely imagines something  in his or her mind’s eye but fails to move beyond the imagination stage into the realm of actualized reality. By that reckoning Jerome Shabazz is a true visionary. Jerome Shabazz has a vision of a revitalized green space smack dab in the middle of an African-American working class urban community.

Shabazz and his family reside in Philadelphia and one day several years ago his son came to him asking for help with a school project on the environment. The assignment triggered an interest in Shabazz to devise a way to teach hands on environmental awareness while positively impacting a surrounding urban setting. Shortly thereafter Shabazz, a Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) Safety and Training Manager, and his wife founded JASTECH, a non profit 501C3 company, to provide a means for community development and improvement.

Out of JASTECH emerged the Overbrook Environmental Education and Art Center (OEEAC) located at 6134-50 Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. When you speak with Shabazz you notice he uses the word “oasis” a lot. An oasis is a fertile space in the midst of a desert due to the presence of water. It is also defined as a green space, desert garden, irrigated land, and resting place. Shabazz sees the OEEAC as an oasis in both the literal and metaphorical sense. It is a green space that is being transformed from a former brownfield, a potentially toxic site that now is spreading greenery in the community. It is a fertile space in the midst of a former granite quarry surrounded by concrete.

JASTECH acquired the property at 6134-50 Lancaster Avenue after looking at area maps. It is more than a notion to clean up an urban brownfield. First assessments and studies must be conducted to determine what types of toxins infest the area. In addition to once being a granite quarry, the property was also the home of a building supply company. An assessment was done on the property; arsenic and lead were found in the soil. This required a professional clean up and certification that the toxins had been removed. This could have been a fiscal and bureaucratic nightmare but Shabazz was able to wade into it and resolve the problems with the help of the city, Pennsylvania, and Federal Environmental Protection Agencies.

Once the assessments were done he was able to partner with government agencies, environmental design professionals, engineers, architects, and attorneys to formulate development and design plans to transform the site into his envisioned green oasis. JASTECH was able to convince the city, environmental professionals, and universities to provide in kind services, expertise or pro bono (free) expertise to formulate a site plan that included state of the art green technology, storm water management best practices to create a one of a kind community center in the heart of an up and coming commercial corridor. While he was doing all that, Shabazz also found time to create an urban based hands on learning curriculum on environmental studies which he shares with the Philadelphia School District. His urban environmental studies program has been incorporated into the curricula of the neighboring elementary, middle and high schools.  Shabazz is a certified 4H instructor and believes the 4H program is extremely beneficial for inner city youth. The Overbrook Environmental Education and Art Center is sprouting green shoots throughout the surrounding community.

The first phase of the development plan was the brownfield clean up and remediation; which has been completed. The property at 6134 Lancaster Avenue is now open and in operation. It uses passive solar energy panels to heat their water system. During the second phase of development the whole Overbrook Environmental Education and Art Center campus/complex will be off the municipal energy grid. There is even a vegetated storm water run off management design on the Art Center’s roof using certified lumber from sustainable forests. Shortly the center will open its bakery and café where it will sell healthy and nutritious baked goods and meals. The center also offers a fully equipped “community kitchen” with an eye towards developing shared culinary skills within the community to encourage healthy meals and food preparation entrepreneurial initiatives. A myriad of classes and courses are currently being taught at the center from music, to male yoga, to nutrition, health maintenance, to line dancing.

On the adjacent lot, Shabazz used impervious asphalt to pave the parking area; stones and gravel cover the nature pathwalks, part of a comprehensively integrated bio-retention system to collect storm water and redirect it throughout the ecosystem to water the plants, trees and shrubs that are currently being planted as part of the outdoor classrooms and community mini park.  Concrete storage bins at the rear of the property left from the building supply company will be used as walls for outdoor classrooms. Planking will cover the bins and be used as flooring for an enclosed high tunnel structure that will facilitate year round gardening. Shabazz plans to initiate a program of community assisted urban agriculture in conjunction with Penn State University to encourage growing healthy fruits and vegetables in the community. When this phase is completed, it will make the location a virtual oasis in the midst of an urban setting.

Farther up the street on the property is an old ACME supermarket building Shabazz is transforming into classrooms, laboratories, and meeting rooms. There are plans for a Tilapia fish farm inside. He envisions classes that teach green technology, weatherization, and installation of solar panels as part of an onsite training and employment incubator. But all his plans and the bourgeoning facility are no good without people to share and enjoy it.

Shabazz encourages volunteers to come to the center to become involved in the various classes and programs and enjoy the greenery that is sprouting there. He wants people to become involved or at least support them financially.  Volunteers and students are currently finishing the mural on the side of the 6134 building and they will begin work on a mosaic to beautify the front of the building. Part of the Center’s outreach program will include the children in their Summer camp collecting used ceramics to be recycled into the mosaic. The process will include interviews of the donors by students and the donors stories and recollections about the article they’ve donated will be included as part of the project.

Shabazz’s vision is taking solid shape. “We do like volunteerism, we do like contributions. We are a 501 C3 tax exempt organization and we are volunteer driven. We like the contribution of people who have talent and resources. We are helping to show that you can take these old spaces and make them desirable. You can bring people back to the urban corridors so they can come out and enjoy themselves. All this environmental work is so people can come on site and be in a pleasing setting where they feel comfortable and know that they are safe and not feel threatened or vulnerable. So we took the extra steps so that your creature comforts are in place.”  Shabazz stated.  For more information about the Overbrook Environmental Education and Art Center’s programs visit their parent Website or the center Website at

From The Ramparts

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Mary Anne Alabanza Akers, Dean & Professor

Morgan State University, School of Architecture and Planning

Dr. Akers “encourages minority students interested in environmental careers to take a holistic approach to the environmental field and integrate the needs of diverse peoples and communities into their approach. ‘Build as much of a knowledge base about ‘the environment’ as you can,’ she advises. ‘But at the same time, working in the environmental field, you also need to be aware of people’s relationships with the environment . . . not just their consumption needs, but their health, spiritual, and cultural connections with natural and built environments. It is similarly important to consider these things within the context of sustainable economic development’.” UMichigan

Addressing Design Disparities: The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities— A database operated by the Center for the Study of Practice at the University of Cincinnati indicates that only 1.5 percent of licensed architects are black, notwithstanding statistics showing that African Americans account for over 12.1 percent of the US population.1 Also discouraging is the miniscule number of minorities in landscape architecture and interior design practice. According to David Rice, founder of the Organization of Black Designers, only about 2 percent of interior designers are black.2 And these percentages are not significantly improving in spite of the AIA, ASLA, ASID and other national organizations’ official commitment to address diversity and inclusivity. How then should the design professions fulfill this purpose?

As we delve deeper into these issues of design disparity and in spite of traditional, mainstream academic institutions’ efforts at implementing strategies to increase the number of underrepresented groups in design education, the question continues to be asked, “Why is there minimal progress in graduating minorities for successful careers in design?” An often overlooked partner that can help to address this disparity in design education and practice are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Of the 117 HBCUs in the United States, seven have accredited architecture programs, three offer landscape architecture degrees, and two have urban planning programs (see sidebar on page 55). Apart from this challenge of a few design programs, HBCUs continue to be the vehicle for successfully producing minority design graduates. For example, the seven HBCUs still graduate approximately 45% of all African American students with professional architecture degrees.Design Intelligence

About the HBCUs project—The high rate of disabilities in U.S. minority populations, particularly the disproportionate rate for African Americans, has a pronounced impact on independence and social participation in many communities.  The gap is likely to grow as aging, obesity and related medical conditions increase rates of disabilities. Universal design in architecture means designing all buildings to increase usability, safety and health to reflect the diversity of the human population. It goes beyond accessible design to support a higher level of independence and social participation as well as unmet needs of diverse groups, not just people with disabilities. Emphasizing universal design components in architectural curricula can help build healthy and supportive communities that reduce the constraints of disability.

Schools with large African American populations clearly have a greater stake in addressing this gap. But they also have much to contribute to the evolving knowledge base of universal design through their unique cultural perspective.  Although UD grew out of the American disability rights movement, its focus has been broadened to making the design of built environments, products, and communities more inclusive for populations of all ages, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds.  It is here that HBCUs can bring a unique and important perspective to universal design that promises to enrich the body of knowledge in this field and in architecture in general.

In her article,  “Addressing Design Disparities: The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities”, the Dean of Morgan University’s School of Architecture, Mary Anne Alabanza-Akers, Ph.D., notes that while 12.1 percent of the U.S. population is African American, only 1.5% of licensed architects and 2 percent of interior designers are Black.Universal Design World

Designing Healthy Communities: The Health Impact of Street Vendor Environments—A conventional solution would be to construct a bypass around the urban core – but that approach is far from being sustainable. To preserve the character of the city’s centre, highways should not be built because these structures will only increase the dark and cold tunnel effect of urban spaces beneath them. Rather, a framework that encourages satellite service centres around the city will decrease the number of vehicles entering the urban core. Banks, professional offices, medical offices and other businesses can relocate to disperse services around the city. An important part of the environmental design plan is to ‘pedestrianise’ several streets in the CBD. This move will decongest the sidewalks and encourage the use of urban spaces for more community-oriented (social, leisure, cultural, and arts) activities and active living, while increasing their economic vitality. Several cities in India and Indonesia have closed major streets to accommodate pedestrians9. Evaluations of these planning strategies have yielded positive results. Businesses have increased their sales, air quality improves, users are more encouraged to stay in these places, crime decreases and urban spaces are enlivened. Lastly, to improve the health of street vendors and urban residents living, working or visiting in the CBD, a greening movement should be embarked upon. Restoring existing parks to better health and planting vegetation around the CBD will improve air quality and decrease the effects of the urban heat during the hot, summer months.World Health Design

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Landscape Architecture: The Magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects

Effective use of citizen participation in planning decision-making processes

By Willis, Angela V., M.C.R.P., Morgan State University, 2008, 129 pages

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Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation

Evaluating Models for Environmental Discourse

Edited by  Ortwin Renn, Thomas Webler, and Peter Wiedemann

A vital issue facing the citizens and governments of modern democracies is the direct participation of the public in the solution of environmental problems. Governments are increasingly experimenting with approaches that give citizens a greater say in the environmental debate. Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation addresses a crucial question: How can we measure the performance of the citizen participation process? A novel approach to the problem is taken by viewing public participation as an act of communication. Drawing on Jurgen Habermas’ Critical Theory of Communication, a normative framework is developed around the central area of citizen participation and competence in knowledge verification.

 A milestone on the road of citizen participation and applied critical theory, the book provides a sound theoretical and methodological basis for the systematic evaluation of models for environmental discourse. Eight models of citizen participation are studied, from North America and Europe. Each model is evaluated and criticized in paired chapters written by prominent scholars. Audience: Planners and citizens alike will find pragmatic advice in the evaluations. Springer, Publisher

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Mr. R. R. Taylor, Director of Industries of Tuskegee Institute, and the first colored graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the architect who drew the plan of the library, which has received much praise from various parts of the country.

The library is open from 7 A. M. to 10 P. M., and is at all times under the supervision of a competent librarian. Free access to the shelves is allowed, and liberal privileges are permitted to both teachers and students in taking out books for use in their rooms. 

An effort has been put forth to make Tuskegee a center of information regarding negro literature, and to that end living negro authors are asked to contribute their works, and pamphlets and books of every description written by negroes are obtained whenever possible. Tuskegee Library and Carnegie

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

This video chronicles the life and times of the noted African-American historian, scholar and Pan-African activist John Henrik Clarke (1915-1998). Both a biography of Clarke himself and an overview of 5,000 years of African history, the film offers a provocative look at the past through the eyes of a leading proponent of an Afrocentric view of history. From ancient Egypt and Africa’s other great empires, Clarke moves through Mediterranean borrowings, the Atlantic slave trade, European colonization, the development of the Pan-African movement, and present-day African-American history.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 19 July 2010



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Related files: Kenneth Simmons Architect   Creating an Oasis In Overbrook  Tuskegee Library and Carnegie

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