The Art of Change

In neighborhoods of Philadelphia hard hit by crime and drugs, public murals offer a vision of hope.

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Jane Golden is driving by a corner of North Philadelphia that most people, given the chance, would leave as fast as they could. Golden, however, is riding the brake: She can’t go slow enough. “Over there!” she calls. Over there is a bleak row of tumbledown, three-story buildings that would seem uninhabitable but for the people walking in and out of them. Yet Golden, who directs the city’s Mural Arts Program, the most prolific mural project in the country, sees the place differently.

“Isn’t that a terrific wall!” she exclaims. The wall is aged brick and runs the length of the building. It used to be attached to the row house next door, but that building is long gone, as are many in this neighborhood, and in its place is a vacant, trash-strewn lot.

“We could do a lot with that wall,” says Golden, an artist herself. She turns the corner. On another stretch of brick, the mural program has painted a three-story tribute to Rachel Bagby and Lloyd Logan, two community leaders, their faces serious and forceful and of a size usually seen on billboards, selling something. (Here they are selling, too: commitment and neighborhood pride.) Half a block later, on the back side of the Jones Memorial Baptist Church, is a panorama of city life, the city life of this very street, in fact, of boys riding bikes, and men and women going about their business as seen through the windows of tenements, and these words from Proverbs 15:3 wrapped around it all like a stole: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place beholding the evil and the good.”

Golden pulls up to a stoplight. The likeness of the late musician Grover Washington Jr., who lived here for much of his life, reaches 60 feet skyward, playing a saxophone 20 feet tall. Golden’s own creation, Peace Wall, a multicultural wheel of clasped hands, is in another neighborhood, maybe 100 murals away, maybe more. At last count, there were more than 2,100 murals in Philadelphia, and the number is growing steadily.

“The murals are all over the city,” Golden says, “though the majority are in neighborhoods that are the most neglected. People want to have beauty in their lives.”

Much of North and West Philadelphia has fallen into ruin in recent decades, their neighborhoods scarred by more than 15,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The residents who remain look to the murals for visual relief from the stark, denatured environments in which they live. There is the intricate mosaic of Salvador Gonzalez’s Butterflies of the Caribbean on Susquehanna Street, and Ras Malik’s agricultural triptych Seasons, whose perfect rows of ripe Big Boys are the backdrop, in summer, to real vines growing real tomatoes in a community garden tended by the residents of Howard and Master streets. And there are waterfalls, lots of waterfalls, on walls all over town.

“One mural I was painting, the people there said, ‘Put in a waterfall,'” says Ana Uribe, a muralist from Colombia who had already put waterfalls into a number of the murals she has painted in Philadelphia, where she now lives. “I didn’t want to. But they were insistent. They said they wanted the flowing water to show how things were going to be cleaned up and get better. They didn’t want to look at any more sadness. They said they already knew how bad things were and didn’t need to be reminded.”

Over on Norris street, in North Philadelphia, block captain Ruth Birchett and her neighbors took a different approach. Though they, too, already knew how bad things were, they saw their mural as a kind of totem that could speak the truth of their lives, and change it.

“There used to be 50 houses on this street,” says Birchett, a 49-year-old African American woman with a youthful face, surveying a block that is defined, now, by what is missing. “There was an ice cream parlor and a bakery, a cleaners and a pharmacy.” Now there is no commerce at all, at least none that requires a storefront. A homeless shelter anchors one end of the street. Around the corner at the other end is a homemade shrine to the three young people who have been shot here so far this year. “We have lost so very much,” Birchett says. “This is a government-forsaken neighborhood.”

The Norris Street project was painted in the summer of 2000, after Birchett submitted an application to the Mural Arts Program demonstrating the neighborhood’s support for a mural and its commitment to maintaining it. Competition was tough; the project receives 200 applications a year and only has the resources — from city and private funds — to paint about 75.

“The Mural Arts Program will not do a mural unless they know they can work directly with people in the neighborhood,” Birchett says, recounting the numerous planning meetings between residents and the mural artist, Cavin Jones, himself a resident of North Philadelphia, who was chosen by Golden and her staff from a roster of 300 artists. As with all of the city’s murals, the residents and the artist designed the mural jointly.

“The artist paints the picture,” says Ariel Bierbaum, who serves as the project’s director of community murals, “but the community paints the vision.”

In 1984, when Golden was hired to paint murals in Philadelphia, it was part of an official effort to stem the proliferation of graffiti in the city. Under her direction, young people — most of them graffiti artists themselves, teenagers who had never dipped a brush in watercolors or seen even the outside of an art museum — were enlisted and paid to put in “scrub time” and to learn how to paint murals. Golden introduced them to professional artists, to poetry, to fine arts. She and her small staff started after-school art programs and summer mural-painting programs and apprenticeship programs. More than 10,000 kids have participated so far, many of them year after year, through junior high and high school, internships, apprenticeships, and jobs.

Beautification projects have been going on for decades in inner cities across America, often with striking results. But it is still remarkable, even to an artist and activist like Golden, how democracy can be advanced in real and tangible ways simply by putting paintings on the sides of buildings in communities that reflect the very failure of democracy. “I always thought murals made art accessible to people, and they do,” Golden says. “But I’ve witnessed how they create real neighborhood change, too.”

Golden is standing with Ruth Birchett in front of the mural on Norris Street when she says this, both women tipping back their heads to take it all in. Covering the entire side of the last house on the block, the mural shows an elderly black couple looking down on the younger generations — on an anguished woman bemoaning the senseless violence in the neighborhood and on an unwed teenage mother cradling a baby. Traditional African symbols decorate the center of the towering canvas, as do a rainbow and a pair of clasped hands, each meant to convey its own message of hope tempered by love and remembrance. Still, the eye is drawn to the outline of a crack pipe that hovers in the picture like a ghost — a symbol, surely, but something more as well.

“The main economy here is the drug economy, which is why the crack pipe is in the picture,” Birchett explains. “The only people who had trouble with it were the ‘entrepreneurs.'”

And this, it turns out, was a good thing. After the mural was painted, drug dealers no longer felt comfortable hanging out at Norris and 19th. They are still in the neighborhood, but with more and more murals dominating blocks like Ruth Birchett’s, the dealers have less and less room to maneuver. Invariably, once a mural goes up, it becomes a catalyst for other kinds of neighborhood improvements. Gardens are planted and tended, picnics are held there, people venture out of their homes, neighborhoods are reclaimed, communities are reconstituted.

As if on cue, a woman about half Birchett’s age approaches the block captain and points to the strip of dirt between the mural and the sidewalk. It is barren, not counting soda bottles and plastic bags and shards of glass and brick.

“We have to do something about this,” the woman says, toeing the soil. Birchett agrees.

They begin to make a plan: to get wood chips, to plant bulbs, to enlist volunteers. They agree to meet out here on the weekend with rakes and hoes and friends, and the woman moves on.

“We’re all community organizers now,” Birchett says, watching her go.


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