Can Someone Help James Dupree?
And Let’s Fix Eminent Domain
While We’re at It.

What’s happening to the West Philly artist is wrong. Period.


Would someone please help James Dupree already?

For weeks I’ve been following his story.  Hopefully you know it by now.  In case you don’t, he’s the artist who owns a building in West Philly and he’s being forced out, under the city’s “eminent domain” rules in order to make way for a grocery store.  Apparently, the neighborhood really needs a grocery store.  So much so that the city is compelled to make him an offer he can’t refuse:  Sell his property at a much-lower-than-market price or watch his building be bulldozed.  Nice.  Dupree is fighting the city.  He’s enlisted some major people in the art world to back him up too.

Eminent Domain?  It’s best defined this way: “The power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property.”

I’ve never met Dupree.  I’m not a tea party activist, or an ultra-right wing conservative or a Ron Swanson Libertarian.  I don’t even know the first thing about art.  But I do know one thing: This is really, really wrong.  I could make jokes, but it isn’t funny either. It needs to be fixed. Dupree should be allowed to keep his property.  More importantly, we should use this opportunity change the way eminent domain works.

But wait… let’s get back to the grocery store.  This is not a vital road or a public service or strategic military operation.  It’s making way for an Acme (or some other market like it) for God’s sake.  Are the people in the neighborhood starving?  Is it really a “food desert” as one city official said?  Somalia strikes me as a food desert.  West Philly doesn’t. Is there no other grocery store around?  When I grew up in Germantown my parents had to drive five miles to the Acme on City Avenue because the pickings were so slim around us. I’m not saying it’s unimportant and an inconvenience for many in the community.  I’m sure there are old and sick people that could benefit by having a grocery store nearby too.  But is this enough of a reason to kick a guy out of his property?  I’m sure Dupree’s as charitable as the next guy, but even he’s got a limit.  Why does he have to be chosen out to suffer?

Then there’s the price.  Which doesn’t matter.  It’s his property. If the price offered isn’t high enough, (which according to him is far from market value), then he’s got every right to just say no.  And even if the price is high enough he still doesn’t have to say yes.  That’s what ownership is all about.  If he wants to suffer the same fate as these homeowners in China then more power to him.  And by the way, he may be a respected artist with works hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but it’s possible that property development may be his true talent:  He bought the place for $185K in 2005, the city offered him $640K and he says it’s worth $2.2 million.  This guy is not just an artist… he’s freaking Donald Trump.  Rather than kicking out entrepreneurs like him, the city ought to be doing everything they can to keep him around.

There is a solution here.

It’s not about whether seizing Dupree’s property is the right or wrong thing to do (it’s wrong, by the way).  It’s more about the process.

Eminent Domain shouldn’t be decided by the city of Philadelphia or any government.  Who made the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority the boss?  What gives them the right to decide whether a guy’s property should be bulldozed in order to achieve their objectives?  Eminent Domain is a necessary thing.  But it needs better and more balanced oversight, and not just in the city of Philadelphia but in cities like ours.  I suggest an elected or appointed board of government, business and otherwise ordinary civic minded individuals who can fairly rule on whether a government has precedence over the property of its individual citizens.   Oh, and choose these people from some other part of the country, not Philly.  Let’s get some clear-headed thinking from the outside.  We’ll return the favor elsewhere.

Maybe James Dupree doesn’t want to make his situation the cause for a national discussion (and I wouldn’t hold that against him).  But what better opportunity is there for coming up for a long term fix to this problem?

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  • NateFried

    I agree with the sentiment that he is getting screwed, but unfortunately, this is not a black and white matter. Contrary to your proclamation about mantua not being a food desert, by any definition within the u.s. it certainly is. A major problem in urban impoverished areas is that many residents don’t have easy access to a true grocery store with fresh food, fruit, and healthy options. Anyone in mantua has to go to 40th and walnut if they want something. For individuals working two jobs, it’s just not that easy to take buses to go grocery shopping for healthy, non preocessed food. A by all accounts, yes, this is a food desert and since a major goal for impoverished areas in the u.s. is to fill those food deserts, this is something that has to happen. As for your definition of eminent domain, it’s a little incomplete. The government has the right to come in and take your property if in doing so, they are bettering the community or solving a big problem…as is being done with mantua.

    Unfortunately, the art studio stands in the middle of the proposed development. A development, btw, is mostly a parking lot. So, if there is a real solution, it would be to change the development to exclude the art property. Better yet, build a bilevel parking garage to exclude his property. If this truly is a food desert, it’s goal is to serve locals…not people driving in…and thus, a large parking lot is anything but what they need. I fact, if you want to make the neighborhood look nicer, a large parking lot is counter productive. I don’t think having a huge parking lot across the street is very good for property values.

    In terms of eminent domain as well… The city needs to confirm his value on the property, because that number also includes moving costs which are incredibly high for his art. In the end, anyone who has their property taken by the government should find themselves in a better situation than they were before. Ad right now, Dupree is finding himself in a worst situation…. With not enough money to move his studio to s better part of town. Unfortunately, this is nothing but gentrification of the worst kind…with him most likely being pushed even further from what some might consider a bettering neighborhood.

    • CHS257

      Good points Nate. You’re wrong about the food desert though: two important definitions that don’t list Mantua in a food desert are 1) from the guys who invented the term at the USDA, and 2) the City of Philadelphia:

      • NateFried

        eek! I most certainly am wrong on that point! hmmm… it definitely makes me think of this in a different lightnow!

  • Jonathan Mandoza

    The ghost of Ed Covington has come back to carefully handle another “situation”.

    Who “leads” the PRA now that Ed “Lotgate” Covington was fired?

    Maybe the PRA should hold a press conference in front of Dupree’s property.

  • Allen Wing

    I’ll acknowledge my bias up front, my parents have been collecting James Dupree since the 1980’s, he is a family friend, and he remains one to this day. Mr. Dupree has long been in good standing with any and all communities that he has lived in, he has brought art education to students that would otherwise have no way of connecting with the art world. Most importantly, his building in West Philadelphia is more than just a building, it is a de-facto community center for those seeking art education and training and Mr. Dupree offers low cost art classes to all people that want a professional training but cant afford professional prices. A grocery store is very important and it has its place in any community, but just as a grocery store provides nourishment for the body, the arts provide nourishment for the soul, no one has ever walked into an ACME and dreamt about their future, but with each brush stroke the students that Mr. Dupree teaches are exposed to a bigger world and they dream about life outside of their corner of the city. I support Mr. Dupree in his fight against the city, WHY CANT A GROCERY STORE BE PUT IN THE FEDERALLY FUNDED PROMISE ZONE? OR THE LAND TRUST? Why must we put a Grocery store in Mr. Dupree’s back yard when this section of the city has over 11,000 vacant or abandon properties in it?

  • Tina Scarpelli McGugan

    I know James Dupree. He has been married to my best lifelong friend for 35 years. He is a good man, a spirited, funny, gregarious and passionate man, and he is a wonderful family man who with his wife has raised three beautiful and accomplished daughters. He is a phenomenal and prolific artist who dedicates much of his time to teaching people to make art and appreciate art. James is good for peoples’ souls, and by extension, good for the soul of a neighborhood. Dupree Studios could and should be a hub of a revitalized neighborhood.

  • Beastmode

    Finally some leftists get a glimpse into what property rights are, and why small govt used to be a worthy goal before the bureaucratic/authoritarian complex ruined this country.
    Another worthwhile thought exercise for leftists is to extrapolate eminent domain’s implicit message that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (I.e. Marxism for low information Obama voters) into the damage and death visited on millions in the name of “the good of the people” by leftist murderers who thought they knew better than the peasants to run their own lives.

    For more life experiences which can also open leftist’s eyes, starting a business can also prove illuminating. Risk your own money to better your families lot in life , and find yourself trapped in a maze of regulations, where the legal lines are so blurry as to be determined at the whim of the State, in the form of building inspectors, tax agencies, environmental agencies , city permits etc.

    But I’m certain that no connections will be made, no minds changed, and those who are decrying eminent domain as bad will agitate in their next breath for confiscation of the wealthy’s money-seeing only that Dupree is part of their tribe, and not that property rights are inalienable or anything.

    • Your-Conscience

      Beastmode: corruption knows no party, race or creed.

  • Old City Sage

    In Philadelphia, it only matters whose pockets you are lining.
    The underdog movies of the 80s are just that. Egalitarian government does not exists. There is no justice unless you are well healed. I speak from experience. Even the two largest law firms in Philadelphia cannot beat a two lawyer “connected” firm. Regardless of evidence. Arts are Philadelphia’s sacrificial lamb.
    I have met Mr. Dupree SEVERAL times and spoke with him about showing at my gallery on a few occasions.
    I am genuinely concerned for his well being. If he is able to generate enough public favor, the scum that move the cogs may have no option but to let him continue to create. However, they will most likely ‘uninclude’ the prospect of transfer, inheritance or assignment.
    I hope he comes out on top.
    But the belly of the beast that is Philadelphia’s ignorant and self-serving bureaucracy and plutocrats will more than likely make him wish that he succumbed to their designs…