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May. 8, 2013 11:30 am

The rise of the Philadelphia maker community

In the past year, big industrial membership-spaces that offer access to expensive manufacturing and fabrication tools and classes has blossomed in the neighborhoods outside of Center City.

The following is a report done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods Program, the capstone class for the Temple Journalism Department. Editor Christopher Wink contributed to this report.
Like you’ve seen with coworking, the wave of ‘maker’ communities is growing in Philadelphia. In the past year, big industrial membership-spaces that offer access to expensive manufacturing and fabrication tools and classes has blossomed in the neighborhoods outside of Center City.

In that time:

  • NextFab Studio below Graduate Hospital (21,000 square feet): Stalwart prototyping facility NextFab Studio, which opened in 2010 at the University City Science Center and now has more than 200 members, relocated to an expanded 2025 Washington Avenue campus last fall, increasing its size and bringing in new technology, like updated 3D printers, water jet cutters and a spray booth for painting.
  • Dept. of Making and Doing in University City (4,500 square feet): This weekend, the Department of Making and Doing will officially open its new headquarters in the former NextFab space.
  • 3rd Ward in Kensington (27,000 square feet): During Philly Tech Week, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward hosted the first open house for its new Kensington space as it begins accepting members for its offerings of light manufacturing, varied making and coworking.
  • Sculpture Gym in Fishtown (7,500 square feet): Thew art-focused effort that launched with $20,000 worth of help from the Knight Arts Challenge has entered its second year of membership and is growing its metalworking and other classes.
  • Globe Dye Works in Frankford: Among the oldest of these efforts, dating to 2009, the sprawling former industrial campus turned manufacturing-focused landlord still hosts a variety of small maker companies and sole proprietorships.
  • The Loom in Kensington (250,000 square feet): The former textile mill now hosts a variety of small industrial firms.
  • Hive76 in Callowhill (750 square feet): The hobbyist hacker paradise off Spring Garden Street has become a hub for spinoff talent who have landed at other locations above.

Itsuki Ogihara, NextFab’s community development specialist, said the interest in physically making things could be a “backlash of the digital world.”

“People are recognizing the importance of working with physical material and physical objects,” she said. “I think it becomes more sort of emphasized or important in a digital age like this where we do everything on the computer.”

NextFab’s former University City space has officially become the home of the Department of Making and Doing, a high-tech workshop formed by NextFab with partners Breadboard, the Hacktory and the Public Workshop. That growth is perfectly representative of the trend here.

The collaboration aims to provide tangible benefits with creations meant to stimulate change throughout the city. Also seeing a lack of hands-on work in the city’s typical educational settings, the Hacktory, which hosts workshops, classes and a project night, provides formal instruction on technical topics and a central meeting place for community members to build things and utilize skills they may have otherwise not realized.

Georgia Guthrie, director of the Hacktory, said this hands-on learning helps engage individual curiosity.

    A member of NextFab took advantage of the large space and available tools to work on a project.

A member of NextFab took advantage of the large space and available tools to work on a project.

“You use a different part of your brain,” Guthrie said. “You want to use all of the tools in your toolbox. Understanding things through touch and how pieces feel together, I think, is an underutilized skill, and it’s also something that’s really valuable.”

The Hacktory is a recipient of a 2013 Philly Tech Week micro-grant for its Balloon Mapping Workshop with Hacks/Hackers Philly and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. The project will culminate in a balloon that can capture images. Hive76, another supporter of the DIY movement, will also receive a micro-grant for an Ultimate Open House and Expo in which they will provide demonstrations and classes. Like the Hacktory, Hive76 provides an area for hacking projects and tools for members to utilize. And by hosting a weekly open house, the member-run co-op encourages non-members to work on their own projects while having the opportunity to network with current members.

What’s to cause for the large number of organizations supporting this hands-on movement in the city?

Philadelphia may be the ideal location to foster a maker movement, according to Chris Dardaris, founder of the Loom, a sprawling industrial building that offers private workspaces and tools for tenants to have creative freedom.

With its access to goods and services, inexpensive rent and a rich history in manufacturing, Dardaris said the city’s opportunities, paired with peoples’ desire to build things, can lead to a larger sense of creative freedom.

"The interest in physically making things could be a backlash of the digital world."
Itsuki Ogihara, NextFab Studio

“I think in a lot of ways, in our society, things are very disconnected,” Dardaris said. “The Internet disconnects us, and our busy lives essentially disconnect us from the tactile environment we live in. I think some of us desire to have greater interaction with that level of tacticity and want to kind of do something that feels real.”

Dardaris said he hopes to continue to evolve the Loom’s services to include an education program and more services for tenants like a health insurance network, a directory with resources on grant funds and an accounting service.

Alex Gilliam, founder of the Public Workshop, a program for youth and their communities to improve their neighborhoods by solving problems and tackling specific needs, said he has seen “incredible power” through people using their hands and minds to make stuff.

He said youth in the city have been able to find better solutions as well as empowerment through a more inspired form learning.

    NextFab's new space on Washington Ave. is much larger than its former base at the University City Science Center.

NextFab’s new space on Washington Ave. is much larger than its former base at the University City Science Center.

The Public Workshop’s new home base will be at the Department of Making and Doing while its Tiny WPA program, which allows young adults in Philadelphia to have a positive impact in their neighborhoods, will continue with projects across the city like the Building Hero Project.

Launched earlier this month, the Building Hero Project, which acts as a “miniature boot camp,” helps young adults to come out of Tiny WPA projects and become better leaders, marketers, designers and ultimately change agents for their communities. By collaborating with community partners, Tiny WPA continues to support adults by helping them do work on other projects or leveraging them into other agencies or community processes.

This year participants in the Building Hero Project are creating benches that will go sale for the public. In June the team will use their skills to design and build secretly playable park benches with community members for a pocket park in Kensington.

“Everyone loves to make stuff, even if it’s crappy,” Gilliam said. “It really goes back to the fact that that’s how we learn. You go back to when you were a kid, you learned by testing, you learned by doing.”

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Cary Carr is an aspiring journalist based in Philadelphia. Before serving as a spring 2013 Technically Philly reporting intern, she interned at Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia magazine and SELF Magazine. She has also served as a staff writer for JUMP Magazine and a columnist for The Temple News. Her work has appeared in various publications, and she is specifically interested in health and fitness writing.

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