When James E. Dupree bought the building that now houses his Mantua studio in 2005, it was a dilapidated garage and warehouse, fit for condemnation.
But the 63-year-old artist — who has an international following and has works in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art — spent years pouring money into the 8,000-foot structure on Haverford Avenue. He now uses it to host art classes, workshops, Dupree's own extensive collection of artworks and an Airbnb accommodation praised by tourists looking to stay in a working artist space during their visit to Philly.
Now, he's set to lose it all. That's because, last December, the City of Philadelphia seized the deed to Dupree's studio. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) plans to raze the building to make way for a parking lot that will accompany a new supermarket complex.
"I built this studio from my designs," he says. "The roof alone was $68,000. I built the walls, but I contracted everything else."
After almost nine years in the space, the studio has been totally rehabbed. It's equal parts work and living space, with a Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom, and new appliances in the kitchen. When Dupree heard rumblings about the redevelopment plan, he got in touch with a real-estate agent, who estimated that its market value was $2.2 million. Dupree declined to disclose the amount the city offered him, but says that it was less than 30 percent of that appraised price.
"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 content of the building — meaning, all 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.
Dupree estimates that having the work professionally moved could cost a quarter of a million dollars. "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 he didn't speak out earlier because he was hoping he could come to an acceptable agreement with the city. Now, he's formally contesting the condemnation.
The office of district City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who sponsored the eminent-domain legislation, did not respond to requests for comment this week. A PRA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on cases that are being formally contested.
Last week Dupree's family started a petition on Change.org to demand his deed be restored. Hundreds of Dupree's current and former students signed on almost immediately.
"Artists are kind of outraged that the officials would treat me in this manner and point a finger at me and say, 'Who do you think you are?' Especially in a city that promotes itself in the arts," Dupree says. "They should at least respect my career, if not assist me in a more positive manner."
Dupree draws a distinction between the type of manufactored gentrification that the planned supermarket would offer and the type that he has wrought, more organically, through years of hard work.
"I moved to West Philadelphia in 1955 on Lancaster Avenue. I've come full circle. 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."
"They weren't expecting a guy like me to be here — educated, with means, international reputation in my field, articulate, and knowing a lot of people." Protests are planned near City Hall and the artist's public work at Broad Street's FYE store, organized by the artist's supporters. "It's not just me anymore. It's in the hands of smart people putting projects together with this information, who are outraged and coming to the forefront."
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