CAMDEN, NJ — With volunteers standing behind and elementary students seated in front, Samir Nichols asked if anyone knew of William Shakespeare.
Hands went up while a few of the Forest Hill Elementary students — several of which he teaches at Superior Arts Institute — called out in response.
Nichols described the original venues for Shakespeare’s works, large, outdoor playhouses. Then he gestured over his shoulder to an open field.
“We’re going to bring that feel to the city. This is going to be the first-ever outdoor art sanctuary, where we’ll be able to build sets,” Nichols said, pointing to a trail off Wildwood Avenue along the Cooper River. “And it kind of already looks like a theater.”
The performance space, tucked in the back of Forest Hill Elementary and the Early Childhood Development Center, would be the byproduct of a new mandate, Nichols said, focused on beautifying former dumping sites.
He hopes to transform vacant lots in North Camden and the Parkside neighborhood this summer for use by the city’s creative groups.
Last week a tree planting was held to dedicate the first of these Superior Arts art sanctuaries.
Nichols gave way to Meredith Brown, program director for the New Jersey Tree Foundation, in leading a step-by-step demonstration for those in attendance. Volunteers from the New Jersey Youth Corps and Campbell Soup Company, which was finishing up its 11th annual Giving That Matters week, dirtied their clothes and swung pickaxes, helping to have the trees up in a hurry.
Nichols worked with Brown throughout the planning process of the sanctuary, which included everything from meeting with county officials to choosing the species of tree. The New Jersey Tree Foundation provided the serviceberry (edible berries) and redbud (for pollination) trees for the project.
“Anytime he would need trees from us he can reach out and have a partner,” Brown said. “We would be happy to partner with Superior Arts in the future in beautification efforts.”
In picking the space in January, Nichols viewed it as a perfect fit since his organization already runs programs at Forest Hill. Brown also noted that ii sits along the Circuit Trails, a network of trails winding through Greater Philadelphia and New Jersey.
“It was a really simple, smooth process to get it done,” Nichols said. “We didn’t go through a lot of hiccups.”
The site did not fall under the dozens identified around Camden by N.J. Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal in December as illegal-dumping locations. But Nichols said he toured some of these over the past few months, looking for “non-traditional spots” that could house performances.
“We want this to be used as a theater space for dance, acting, or a visual gallery,” Nichols said. “Whatever it is, we want to have this outside space to allow people to perform.”