Artist fighting eminent domain plans a Mantua museum

At Haverford Avenue and 36th Street, a brightly colored studio exterior is marred by a dark cut-out sculpture of a man’s body, strung up by its neck and dangling over the sidewalk.
The figure was created by artist James Dupree to illustrate his ongoing battle to keep the studio from being condemned by the city so a private developer can build a shopping plaza.
“The law is so binding it’s like being lynched,” Dupree, 64, said of the city’s use of eminent domain to seize his studio. “This law kills people.”
Dupree, who calls himself “the Black Picasso,” is currently preparing work for shows across the country, including a show at Art Basel in Miami.
He lost his bid to block the seizure of his Mantua space in the Court of Common Pleas, and his attorneys will file an appeal with Commonwealth Court next week.

“This contemporary Jim Crow law of eminent domain is used for seizing poor communities, and a large proportion of it is black communities,” Dupree said. “There’s a privileged elite out there that thinks, ‘This’ll never happen to me.'”

Dupree says he’s battling to save a piece of Philadelphia’s character, and wants to preserve his studio, filled with 30 years of his own works, as The Dupree Studio and Museum in Mantua — a new place to display art and artifacts from the neighborhood.
“When this becomes University City, and they decimate the community, Mantua will no longer be Mantua. The Mantua museum will be the repository of what it once was,” said Dupree, who believes his studio was condemned to hasten student-friendly development from nearby Drexel University.
The proposed Westview Plaza would cover four blocks, from 36th to 38th streets between Haverford Avenue and Wallace Street, with a parking lot, supermarket and other stores. Dupree’s studio would become a parking lot.
“The opportunity to bring fresh food options to this neighborhood could be lost if we don’t find an adequate resolution,” said Office of Housing and Community Development spokesman Paul Chrystie in an email.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority offered Dupree $600,000 for his 8,600-square-foot studio, and recently, a swap for a decaying building nearby.
But Dupree says the renovated studio, which records show he bought for $173,000 in 2005, is worth more than $2 million in the developing neighborhood. At 34th and Baring streets nearby, a 4,800-square-foot home sold for $700,000 just months ago.
The city also offered Dupree another building in West Philadelphia which it owns in exchange for turning over his warehouse.
He also called the warehouse offered for exchange was “not comparable” to his studio, which he completely renovated after purchasing it nine years ago.

“I don’t know how this is going to end,” Dupree said. “I always wanted to be known for my art. I never thought it would be like this — victimized by the politicians I voted for in the city that I love so much.”

Neither Rick Young, president of local community organizationthe Mantua Community Improvement Committee and a listed representative of Westview, nor City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents the area, responded to requests for comment.

Pennsylvania passed Senate Bill 881 to restrict eminent domain seizures in 2005, but it didn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2013.

Dupree’s property was condemned on Dec. 27, 2012.

Dupree received support and media attention across the nation after he appealed the condemnation in 2013.

In early 2014, he premiered a show of new work entitled “Broken Dreams in the Promise Zone” about the experience of the condemnation.

In June, Judge Ellen Ceisler issued a decision that upheld the condemnation of Dupree’s studios in one sentence.

Ceisler issued a second opinion in September explaining the rationale behind her decision and opposing appeal by Dupree’s lawyers. Four days later she released a third opinion on the case to correct “significant typos” in the second opinion.

The appeal is now headed to Commonwealth Court.