The Indy Hall Experiment

Tech community Independents Hall and its dynamic founder are poised to change the way we work—and a North Philly neighborhood

On that recent Thursday at the Hall, around 3:30 in the afternoon, Whitney was working on a major revamp of the game. Now, instead of throwing boomerangs at zombies, players would be throwing bananas at big-game hunters. Whitney hoped that ratcheting down the violence would attract a broader audience.

With a digital tablet, he sketched a new backdrop for one of the levels. A subtly shaded picture of a green mound gradually appeared on his screen. It looked like a hill in a forest.

“Right direction?” Whitney asked O’Brien, showing him his iPad.

“Yeah, right direction, for sure.”

“It’s like the ground, and guys are coming in from the side and attacking you,” Whitney said. “But I’m trying to get the ground right.” “I think that’s almost like the right texture,” O’Brien said. “Also, we’re going to keep the fog over it, right?”

“Yeah, we’ll keep the alpha. I’ll probably use a grunge brush.”

“Cool.”

THE NORTH PHILLY neighborhood known as Kensington South is west of Fishtown and north of Northern Liberties, walkable to each but grittier, more spaced-out, more industrial, more forbidding to the kind of person who rarely ventures out of the Old City/Fishtown/NoLibs troika—which describes the average Indy Hall member. Fully 25 percent of the land is vacant. There are lots of old factory buildings. The population is incredibly diverse—part Eastern European, part black, part Muslim, with a dash of young white professionals drawn by the cheap housing. Future zoning changes will speed commercial development; it’s inevitable that parts of Kensington South will be overrun by the expansion of Fishtown and NoLibs. But it hasn’t happened yet.

“This can be anything we want it to be,” Hillman says.

We’re on foot, walking down a moonscape known as North Howard Street. We pass a scabby-looking park where a single young boy is swinging, and what looks like an abandoned parking lot dotted with Kool-Aid packets and Queen Anne’s lace poking up through the cement. A sign says NO DUMPING.

Hillman says that if K’House is a success­—and he’ll be its first tenant, to oversee the project—he hopes to raise money­ from the Indy Hall community to buy another lot up here, then another: “There’s sort of a checkerboard of available land.” The idea is to fuel the growth of the Hall organically, horizontally, instead of vertically, which is how developer Bart Blatstein has tried to do it in Northern Liberties, with his monolithic palace of brick, the Piazza at Schmidts. First, Hillman worked with open-source software tools. Then he created an open-source office. Now he wants to begin to build an open-source neighborhood, one unit at a time. In a practical sense, this means designing each building with an eye to community involvement—creating physical features that encourage the Indy Hallers and neighborhood people to mix. For instance, he envisions a rooftop garden on K’House, but that’s the kind of thing that would require community­ approval. “We’ll be able to talk about it—go to the community and say, here’s why we want to do it, and it’s not for throwing ragers and inviting bands over, it’s for growing veggies, and hey, you’re welcome to hang out, too.”

It may sound a little utopian. But it’s perfectly in keeping with Hillman’s definition of awesome: something with “an element of realness or genuineness, juxtaposed against … larger-than-life. Like, I can’t believe this actually happened. Something that levels up the status quo is awesome.” Level up is a term that geek culture has borrowed from video games: When a player levels up, the game becomes harder, deeper, more complex, more satisfying. What drives Hillman is this constant restless urge to level up without capitulating to existing ways of doing business. If you’re a geek who has corralled your fellow geeks into an army to accomplish geeky things, and if you believe in leveling up, you want to use that power for something else, something bigger. And who needs it more than some struggling neighborhood in North Philly?

On North Howard Street, Hillman walks me to the alley behind the future site of K’House. The alley is called Hope Street. Hope Street backs into a former used-car lot. A piece of graffiti on a wall reads “BMAN•.” There’s a view north to an old industrial smokestack. The pavement glitters with broken glass.

“This is one of the first things on my mind to do in the fall,” Hillman says. “I want to do cleanup of this block.”

He looks around and exhales deeply, momentarily overwhelmed.

“Get a dumpster,” Hillman says. “Bring a few kegs up. You know, make it a party.”

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  • Rachel

    Saw the drawings on the wall a few weeks ago at Indy Hall when I was visiting but could not help but notice something was very missing….where are the dog houses? Given the present culture or the culture present, I should not expect an environment accommodating children but definitely dogs. Dog house, dog bowl station, centrally located dog park…..certainly an oversight.

  • Cary

    LOVE reading what you’re doing. I co-lead a social enterprise down in DC that has a plan for co-working space, housed with a hostel and a thrift store (http://spacious.me/projects/spacious-world-hq/). You’ll be an inspiration as we dream and build.