PAVE PARADISE?: The city plans to turn James Dupree’s 8,000-square-foot studio into a supermarket parking lot.
When James E. Dupree bought the building that now houses his Mantua studio in 2005, it was a dilapidated garage, fit for condemnation.
But the 63-year-old artist — whose paintings of vibrant, abstract loops and whorls have hung in 10 national institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art — spent years pouring money into the 8,000-square-foot structure at 3617 Haverford Avenue. He now uses it to host art classes, workshops, an extensive collection of his own artwork and an Airbnb accommodation. After years of rehab, the place is now equal parts work and living space, with a Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom and new appliances in three kitchens. “I built this studio from my designs,” he says. “The roof alone was $68,000.”
Now, he’s about to lose it all. That’s because last December — as it has threatened to do in the past — the City of Philadelphia seized the deed to Dupree’s studio, condemning the block. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) plans to raze the building to make way for a parking lot that will accompany a new supermarket complex at 36th and Haverford.
In return, Dupree says, the city offered less than 30 percent of his property’s market value.
Dupree, who also teaches painting at Fleisher Art Memorial, says that contradicts the city’s claim that it values its art community. “For them to say that the work isn’t worth anything, my sweat equity isn’t worth anything and my business is not worth anything, that just threw me off the deep end, big-time,” Dupree says. “I went to court six years ago and thought it went away.”
When Dupree heard new rumblings about the redevelopment plan, he got in touch with a real-estate agent, who estimated his studio’s market value at $2.2 million. Dupree declined to disclose the exact amount the city offered him. A PRA spokesperson says the agency does not comment on cases that are being formally contested.
“They [proceed] to devalue the land through blight,” Dupree says, “then file an eminent domain and say it’s fair market value after they give you an appraisal in a drive-by.”
Dupree says the PRA later offered to throw in an additional $40,000 for the contents of the building — including most of Dupree’s work since the early ’70s, when he was first featured in a major museum. “I have about 5,000 pieces of artwork in here,” he says. He estimates that having the work professionally moved could cost a quarter of a million dollars.
Dupree says he didn’t speak out earlier because he was hoping he could come to an agreement with the city. But on Nov. 1, his family started a petition on Change.org to demand that his deed be restored. More than 1,000 of Dupree’s students and colleagues signed within a week, and supporters are planning to hold protests at City Hall.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who sponsored the eminent-domain legislation and in whose district the block in question falls, did not respond to requests for comment this week.
At a City Council Rules Committee hearing last November on the plan, no objections were raised. City officials described the supermarket as a longtime “dream of this community and of Councilwoman Blackwell.”
“This has been a long time coming,” Blackwell said in the hearing. “We wanted a whole extra block for the supermarket. But we fought long and hard, and even the people involved in the condemnation are saying, ‘When’s it going to happen?’”
Dupree’s supporters see it differently. Alyce Bernstein, who, like Dupree, is an instructor at Fleisher, calls the condemnation “looting.” “It’s clear that our government has contempt for its hardworking people,” Bernstein wrote in an email.
Dupree, however, draws a distinction between the type of manufactured gentrification that the planned supermarket would offer and the type that he has wrought through years of hard work.
“I moved to West Philadelphia in 1955 on Lancaster Avenue. … I’m back to revitalize the community. I’m the gentrification,” he says. “They want to take it away from me, meaning: They want it. They want to know what this is going to be worth in five years when Drexel comes in.”
Dupree says the city didn’t count on an educated, well-connected artist being directly in the path of those plans.
“All I could think of was how do you seize a person’s free and clear deed? How do you condemn a building that’s not condemnable?” he says. “The answer is they made a big mistake. … They weren’t expecting a guy like me to be here.”
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