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Chester Made Man Uses Art To Spark Change In His Hometown

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- For years, the city of Chester has been best known for high crime rates and poverty. But change is coming -- and one man is leading the effort.

Reporter: "Tell me where your stamp is."

"Our stamp is all up and down this block," says Devon Walls, a celebrity videographer, photographer and artist.

Walls has traveled the world, but he's expanding his repertoire to include real estate investor. And he's putting his money where his heart is-- in his hometown of Chester.

"I feel that I am one of the people who can come back and make change," he says, "but you can't change the community without owning the land."

Walls owns the MJ Freed Theater in the 500 block of the Avenue of the States in downtown Chester. There he hosts art performances, workshops and paint days that have helped change the entire culture of downtown. And over the past few years, he's bought property after property, slowly but surely changing the landscape as well.

Reporter: "How many projects do you have in progress right now?"

(Chuckling) "Six or seven," Walls says.

Walls, who started the Artist Warehouse Studios several years ago in Chester, doesn't sleep much. He co-owns a furniture shop and is renovating a space where he'll open a coffee shop this fall. He's also constructing artist residences, a dance studio, conference space, green space and that's just the beginning.

"Property ownership is step one," he says, "then you use the talent here in Chester -- using them to help rebuild and once you get a sense of ownership going, you can build bigger and faster."

That is his vision. To help rebuild Chester for those who are Chester made, like he is.

"With us from Chester being able to build it -- it's giving them hope right now," says the father of three.

The change has been a magnet for local artists, who flock to the spaces and roll up their sleeves to lend a hand. It's also a magnet for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the likes of the Pew Foundation and others. There have also been queries from new investors and the vision of new customers, walking in downtown Chester.

"The foot traffic," says Walls, "that has been big. You see a lot of people who don't look like they would be in Chester -- walking in Chester."

Also more businesses; several have opened in the past few months. Many of the business owners say they decided to open despite Chester "bad rep" because of Walls.

"The change is bigger than me," says Walls, who notes he has a lot of help and support from the community, Widener University, city officials and others. "I believe that if we all stay and we all build -- the community will change."

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