New Mural To Offer Message of Respect in Wissinoming Area

Workers repair Mount Carmel Cemetery gravestones that were damaged by still-unknown vandals earlier this year. | Photos by Lafayette Hill Studios

When news spread in late February that hundreds of tombstones had been vandalized at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming, the community galvanized in response.

Volunteers flocked to several cleanups at the Jewish cemetery. Rallies drew community members and their allies across the city. And now, a new mural will project a message of respect from the Wissinoming Recreation Center, a mere 100 feet from the scene of the vandalism.

According to Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which is launching the mural in partnership with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, Friends of Wissinoming Park and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the timing couldn’t be better. Mural Arts had discussed the possibility of working with the Interfaith Center for about a year.

“We thought about doing a series of murals and programs that would be about looking at faith as a bridge instead of a divider,” Golden explained, “and when the vandalism occurred at the cemetery, we thought that this would be the perfect moment to do a project that would bring people together.”

After looking at a map of the area surrounding the cemetery at Frankford and Cheltenham avenues, a space in the adjacent Wissinoming Park presented itself as a possible canvas.

“We noticed there was this recreation center and we have a great relationship with Parks and Rec,” Golden said, referring to the city agency. “We met with the Wissinoming Civic Association and with a friends group of the park. Everybody was very excited and inspired by the notion of doing something that was uplifting and beautiful and talked about respect and working together.”

John Barnes, president of the Wissinoming Civic Association, hasn’t seen the design of the mural, but sees the effort as a way to invigorate the community.

“We’re taking the positive out of all this negativity that’s happened,” he said. “We’re moving forward with just a positive vibe, positive feel and bringing all that positive energy back to the community.

“The community came together to support Mount Carmel and those laid to rest there, and it’s important that we move forward on this,” he continued. “I believe that the art and the beauty and education that’s a part of Mural Arts could really do things in that little pocket of our city to bring people together.”

Mural Arts reached out to artist Barbara Smolen to create the mural design, which will be unveiled at a public groundbreaking at 3 p.m. on May 19. Golden said the project will hopefully be finished by the end of June.

Called “Cultivate Respect,” the mural will be a pastoral and serene image about nature, Golden said, with “delicate greens and grasses and silhouettes of flowers.” Golden described it as almost resembling a lace pattern in which you can see intricate connections in its design. But there is also room for interpretation.

Creating a mural in response to an incident like that at Mount Carmel embodies one of the functions of public art, Golden said. “We sometimes do public art because it can be a catalyst leading to other things. And we do public art because it’s a way of connecting people because of the process.”

When Golden’s organization creates a mural, it brings different facets of the community together, whether it’s people who know each other or people who are at odds with each other, she added. “I find this really fascinating, that the opportunity to create together seems to inspire people to rise, taps into their better angels, fosters this great discourse and dialogue around the project but also around other things.

“So there’s this horrific desecration of tombstones in the cemetery,” she continued, “and there are a variety of responses — volunteers stepped up and that was wonderful, people start talking about issues. But also another response is to engage people in creating something that’s really beautiful that then serves as this permanent reminder that ugliness is not going to rule the day.”

When the cemetery desecration occurred, recalled Abby Stamelman Hocky, executive director of the Interfaith Center, one of the calls received by her organization was from Golden asking whether this was the chance they had been looking for to work together.

“We were very happy to have the opportunity to do this,” Hocky said. “It would be wonderful to continue to do work into the future to bring us all together across faith lines, across racial and ethnic lines, and stand in solidarity.”  

The partnership hopes to plan programming associated with the project, such as a community paint day in which community members can come out to help paint the mural in addition to other educational opportunities. By way of example, she pointed to the result of community interaction in neighboring Tacony after Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai was vandalized.

“The fact that sacred symbols — a synagogue and a cemetery — were violated, is [why] people rose up and said, ‘Not in our town,’” she said. “The Interfaith Center is very proud to help people take that resolve and to take it to the next level of really getting to know their neighbors.”

While “Cultivate Respect” isn’t the first mural in Wissinoming, it is the first in recent years, Golden said. She hopes it’s not the last.

“I would love to create a series of these beautiful little gems throughout Wissinoming. That would be wonderful,” she said. This mural “calls people together and then it reminds people that they came together and it lives on for many, many years.” 

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