by Pete Mazzaccaro
Late last year, Roxborough resident Celeste Hardester had decided it was time for a change of pace. She had been working as a photographer since 2006, having gone into photography after leaving Hal Lewis, an advertising agency where she had risen from a photo researcher to a CFO and part owner in 20 years.
She had recently become active with the Central Roxborough Civic Association and had grown to enjoy community work.
“Photography is wonderful and challenging,” she said. “ Yet, it’s really hard to work on your own.”
So last winter, she began looking for work and stumbled across an ad on craigslist that was just about perfect. The ad was for the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Community Manager, the title of the association’s executive director. In July, she was officially hired and began work in September.
“It spoke to me,” she said of the job description. “I wanted to use my background in management and my recent knowledge and understanding of volunteer and civic work. It struck me as a coalescence of my experiences.”
It might seem like a circuitous path, Hardester has been between business and artistic work her whole life.
In the early 1980s, she had returned to Philly a 20-something with 10 years of experience as a silversmith and gift store operator in Bar Harbor, Maine. She had amassed a sea shell collection in Bar Harbor and, seeking its sale, ended up a volunteer at the substantial malacology (seashell study) collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
When a phone call came in from the owner of what was then a small graphic design firm, Hal Lewis, she agreed to do some photo research for the firm and soon joined.
When Hardester began at Hal Lewis, it had 10 to 12 employees. It’s business was creating images and ads for pharmaceutical companies. While Hardester was there, the company landed an expanded role with Merck and became a full-fledged advertising firm, complete with copy writers and sales people.
“I ended up doing a lot of different things, creating on the fly,” Hardester said of her time at Hal Lewis. “I took on things to fill specific needs I edited copy, proofread, researched.”
Lewis died in 1998 and the company’s ownership transferred to a number of long-time employees who held shares in the company. But after 20 years, Hardester decided she didn’t want to spend her whole life as a CFO.
“I didn’t want to stay there, “ she said. “I realized I had taken the safe route.”
So now, after five years of running her own photography business, a path that took her to Ireland for nine months to work on profile and landscape photos, Hardester is embarking on another substantial career shift.
(Though she has not abandoned photograhy. She is still keeping her Manayunk studio and currently has a number of her photograhs hanging in Roberto’s Trattoria in Erdenheim.)
It’s been about two weeks now since Hardester officially began work as the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Community Manager. She’s been attending community meetings and taking the temperature of the community as a whole.
So far, she says, she’s been impressed by the the association’s many committees and the level of committee member involvement, particularly the Land Use Planning and Zoning and Development Review committees, two committees tasked with evaluating zoning changes in the neighborhood.
“I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen,” she said. “I know it takes practice to interact well with people and be professional. They do that.”
Beyond that, Hardester said she’s interested in answering some of the big questions that face the association.
“I’m interested in the role of the association,” she said. “It’s a tremendous association that’s easily undervalued. I want to understand what’s here and try and help the association move forward.”
It’s part of the larger challenge ahead of Hardester as she tackles the many issues the 60-year-old civic association faces – how to retain membership and engagement at a time when what it means to be a community have been shifting dramatically. The challenge is something Hardester says she’s up for.
“I’ve certainly heard of how disagreeable things can be here,” she said. “But in a lot of ways, I think, that’s people being people. I want to try and help at this point, to learn what’s going on and understand what’s here.”
Finally, she’s eager to hear from residents.
“I want to get to know the community and learn about what is important to them,” she said. “ I am making phone calls and meeting people on the street and all around.”
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