West Philadelphia artist fights city for his studio


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James Dupree Studio

Photo by Yolanda Chen


In 2005, West Philadelphia artist and School of Design graduate James Dupree purchased a dilapidated warehouse at 36th Street and Haverford Avenue for $200,000.

He has since worked to transform the 8,600-square-foot property into a unique space with 10 rooms, one of which was recently named by Philly Curbed as among the “Five Amazing Spaces You’d Never See If Not For Airbnb.”

“Everything I own is invested in this building,” Dupree said. “From the roof to the plumbing to the electrical, it’s all new, and I have renovated it to become my dream studio.”

But in 2012, Dupree’s ownership of his home and workspace came under threat when City Council approved the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s plan to pave the way for a supermarket along Haverford Avenue, which PRA spokesman Paul Chrystie explained would address the neighborhood’s lack of healthy, affordable food.

The PRA condemned Dupree’s studio and other surrounding parcels through eminent domain, a legal process that enables the government to take private property, compensate the owner and redevelop the land for public use.

Dupree challenged the seizure of his property in court but lost his case against the city. Now, he and others are in the process of appealing the court’s decision.

Melinda Haring, the Institute for Justice’s activism manager, has been working with Dupree to publicize his situation and prevent the city’s abuse of eminent domain. Even though the PRA claims the supermarket would help the community, Haring believes that the PRA cannot legally use eminent domain to develop a private business like a supermarket. 

After the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London highlighted the widespread abuse of eminent domain, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Property Rights Protection Act,” a bill that forbids the use of eminent domain “to take private property in order to use it for private enterprise.”

Since Dupree’s property is not being redeveloped for public use, Haring insists that the city cannot pursue its plan under current law. Chrystie, the PRA spokesperson, counters that the PRA has followed state procedures by presenting Dupree with financial compensation and honoring his right to contest the offer.

But Dupree feels that the financial package the city presented to him is inadequate. After having his studio appraised for $2.2 million, Dupree felt exploited by the city’s offer of only $640,000 for his space.

“If they had offered me what my building is worth, taking into consideration its future value instead of just doing a drive-by appraisal that shows no respect for my work, this would not be such a travesty,” Dupree said.

Dupree emphasized that his studio’s potential worth will grow since property values are bound to rise with an ensuing wave of gentrification in the area. Professor John Landis, the department chair of City and Regional Planning at PennDesign, said Drexel University’s plans to expand north will likely inflate the prices of many Mantua properties. In addition to the impact of Drexel’s expansion, the Obama Administration’s declaration of Mantua as a Promise Zone — a national initiative to revitalize the community — will drive property values up, Dupree believes.

But as the neighborhood welcomes an infusion of economic growth, Dupree and the other property owners whose land was seized by the city will not reap the benefits.

As a means of gaining support in opposition to the city’s property seizure, Dupree has gathered petition signatures and used his art as a forum to publicize his grievances. Dupree has completed over 300 artworks that shed light on his struggle to defend his studio.

“I now consider my studio to be a museum since the entire building is filled with art, most of which reflects the pain and stress this situation has caused me,” Dupree said.

Dupree suffered a stroke that he believes was caused by the emotional strain of fighting the city. The outside of his studio currently displays a powerful mural entitled “Stolen Dreams,” a visual representation of his experience. Four short documentaries have also been made to make his story known.

Dupree continues to defend his art studio since he feels so connected to the community in which it is located.

Born and raised in the Mantua area, Dupree associates the neighborhood with his growth as an artist, educator and business owner. Though his works appear in museums around the world, many of his pieces reside in local locations, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the African American Museum.  

His deep attachment to the studio also derives from years of giving back to the neighborhood. His studio has become a beloved center in the community partly due to the art classes and exhibits that he hosts there. He has also invested several years as an educator in local programs, such as the Community Voyage School for runaway children. In 2010, he received the University of Pennsylvania Black Alumni Society Living Legend Award in 2010 for his contributions to West Philadelphia.

The recent Drexel University report, “A Fragile Ecosystem,” illuminates the value that artists like Dupree add to the community. Co-authors Neville Vakharia and Andrew Zitcer explained in an interview that West Philadelphia neighborhoods contain a surprisingly dense but unsupported population of established artists that could serve as important assets to a community’s well-being.

Zitcer added, “We have to make sure to find ways to give artists the tools to strengthen opportunities in the community, especially the ones who are making positive contributions, such as holding art classes, connecting youth and engaging the residents.”

For Dupree, it’s his relationship to the community that drives him to continue fighting for his property.

“I am lucky to have the means to fight it, so I will take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to,” he said.

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