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New exhibit highlights a transforming Fishtown and Kensington

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Mural Arts | Photo courtesy of Sheldon Omar Abba

Commonweal Gallery’s newest exhibit, which opens on Feb. 8 with an opening party on Feb. 11 from 6-9 p.m. and will run through March 12, focuses on the ever-changing landscapes of Fishtown and Kensington.

Photographers Jaime Alvarez and Sheldon Abba have spent the better part of the last half-decade documenting the redevelopment of the neighborhoods as the city looks to redefine its residential appeal to outsiders. It’s the first time both photographers’ work will be displayed together. 

Alex Conner, the owner of Commonweal, said what most stood out to him about the work being done by Alvarez and Abba, aside from the content being similar in nature, is how they both capture the changing geography of the neighborhoods they focused on.   

“It’s a kind of longform documentary,” Conner said. “They’re not going out to different parts of the city for a long weekend and just taking a couple shots and coming back in. But they’re really meditations on change.”

Alvarez, who moved to Philly from Puerto Rico in 2005 before settling down in Fishtown in 2008, often brought his camera along with him as he explored his neighborhood, snapping pictures of what he’d come across. As his archive of photos began to expand and the neighborhood began to develop, he soon decided to turn it into a project, posting one or two images a day on his Fishtown Daily profile on Instagram starting around five years ago.

Alvarez’s photos, which feature, among other things, recently demolished buildings, abandoned lots and local landmarks, soon started receiving a large amount of feedback from the neighborhood.

“As I posted, more people started reacting and responding,” Alvarez said. “And then it just became a dialogue within the community.”

Alvarez eventually became acquainted with Abba, who has also spent his time chronicling the rapid redevelopment of the area along Girard Avenue approaching Fishtown. For Abba, getting to know a fellow artist with a similar vision to his is something he found particularly gratifying.  

“It’s been great to speak to another artist who is seeing some of the same things that you’re seeing in different areas and to hear about the ways that they’re interpreting it,” Abba said.

Over the course of their work, both artists have taken note of the noticeable changes going on in their neighborhoods, even pointing out that some of the buildings featured in the photos being presented in the exhibit have been demolished relatively recently. Preserving the connections people have with those locations through their pictures is one of the exhibit’s aims.

“As eerie and scary as it may be because it does feel like the world is outpacing us in some ways, there are also memories that we connect to those things that are important,” Abba said. “The histories of people that have been there and of these places are important.”

Abba also hopes that showing how quickly the community has transformed encourages people to appreciate their surroundings as they currently are.

“I hope that people might see things that they might think are common, or places that they’ve seen before, and maybe connect with each other or themselves about them a little bit more,” Abba said.

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