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Tour Marks Bright Spots on Urban Landscape

April 26, 2007 By:
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Participants (above) pose in front of muralist Shira Walinsky's "Mantua Stars," which lines the Spring Garden Street Bridge, while (below) a piece called "Holding Grandmother's Quilt," by Jane Golden, Don Gensler and University of Pennsylvania students, fills a once vacant lot on Aspen Street.
A trolley zipped down West Philadelphia's Mantua Avenue Sunday morning, past dozens of vacant lots, cracked sidewalks and stately, yet somewhat faded, old row homes.

Turning a corner, however, the trolley emerged at an entirely different scene: a giant mural splashed with electric blue and deep purple hues, painted into a collage of swirling butterflies, sunny dandelions and gently rolling hills.

The inscription: "You Can Move Mountains."

The Sisterhood of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park toured this and 36 other murals, which, thanks to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, now enhance the neighborhood.

The initiative, which started in 1984, has largely been spearheaded by Jane Golden, a Jewish woman from Margate, N.J., who has degrees in both mural painting and political science from Stanford University. After spending several years championing murals in Los Angeles, Golden moved back to the region to direct what started out as an anti-graffiti network.

Today, the fruits of her labor brighte storefronts, school yards, playgrounds and prvate homes in nearly every neighborhood in Philadelphia; the initiative, which is partly city-run and part independent nonprofit, has completed roughly 2,700 works to date, with about 150 more scheduled to go up each year. This spring, for example, teams will be working on murals at Hahnemann University Hospital, Olney High School and a nursing home at 47th Street and Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia.

"We're known as the city of murals," explained volunteer docent Maureen Zug, as the trolley rounded a corner. "Philadelphia has more murals than any other city in the world."

Sisterhood members who attended said they were impressed by the murals' socially relevant themes, which range from AIDS prevention ("Protect Yourself," a towering mural warned) to the importance of reading and education.

Other Sisterhood representatives, like Linda Koven, said that they were struck by the effect the project seems to have had on neighborhood aesthetics.

"It's made the area into an outdoor museum," said Koven, a social worker with the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia. It's taken areas that look "bombed out," she continued, and, adding art and greenery, made them into something "living and ongoing."

Other tour attendees, however, wondered just how deep that transformation runs.

"I like the idea of beautification of the area," proclaimed Judy Brown, who belongs to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel but works at Congregation Adath Jeshurun. "But what I really wonder is, are the murals meaningful to the people who live here?"

Zug said the answer is clear: Mural arts have had a profound effect on area residents.

Though "murals, of course, are not a magic bullet," the projects have built cleaner, greener, more neighborhood-centric communities, she argued.

More Than a Pretty Picture

What's more, continued the docent, the program, which offers free after-school art classes at 60 locations across the city, has engaged more than 30,000 troubled and at-risk youth in painting, project management, role modeling and other activities. The goal is to target all kinds of trouble spots: For example, one ongoing initiative tries to minimize friction between teens and police officers by making them partner muralists; another reaches out to youth in local prisons.

Together, this forms a cornerstone of Golden's vision for neighborhood rehabilitation through the arts.

Docent-in-training Bettina Lowe added that the artistic process enriches the health of the community in other ways as well: Program coordinators orchestrate town-hall-type meetings between artists, neighborhood associations and local non-profit groups.

"It reminds me of a Quaker need for consensus," said Lowe. "It really engenders community."

Still, to Sisterhood co-president Amy Blum, the most important effect is perhaps not as tangible as all that; in fact, it may translate into something that's hard in measure conventionally.

"It's like hope," said Blum, as she stared at a giant portrait of the renowned activist and singer Paul Robeson. "It gives people a sense of pride," that "they, too, can have beauty in their community."

 

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