Philadelphia, the Last Stand for Urban Murals

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- They are the hidden gems of this old city, running up the side of down-at-the-heels Victorian rowhouses and dominating vacant lots with a surreal intensity. A child reaches for a star painted onto a chimney, a grandmother sews a purple quilt, six lifer inmates seek salvation.

They are haunting and passionate, and these vast murals are like wildflowers that took root in urban decay and never died.

White-haired Marian Custus peers out her door where a row of elegant townhouses once stood. The owners fled, and crack and arson crept in. All became rubble. Two years ago the artists arrived and enlisted neighborhood kids and painted two radiant murals on the sides of rowhouses, known collectively as "Holding Grandmother's Quilt."

"Do you know how lucky I am?" Custus confides to a visitor. "It's like waking up every morning and having a museum painting in your neighborhood. I feel so lucky to live here."

No city in America has so much mural art, a brick wall poetry that reflects every mood in Philadelphia. There are portraits of Dr. J and Frank Sinatra and a brilliant mural of Jackie Robinson sliding home. But as touching are murals of neighborhood children and a beloved cop who died in Iraq, a "Healing Wall" that stretches 300 feet along the railway tracks and a 50-foot Brobdingnagian garden mural that dominates a now-drug blasted corner in the Mantua neighborhood.

"It's like they're the autobiography of this city," said Jane Golden, director of the city's Mural Arts Program, who searches for barren walls with the intensity of a huntress. "They have the power to move the soul."

This art took flower in New York City. Disinvestment and white flight and arson laid New York low in the 1970s, but out of that decay stepped thousands of graffiti taggers and muralists, among them Keith Haring and Dondi and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Some saw their art as brilliant and others as a scourge but that debate does not matter anymore because most of the art is gone.

Real estate is too valuable now for street art; every vacant lot has become a Build it Now! commodity. The only murals left in Manhattan are 16-story ads for Calvin Klein and Bose speakers.

"We had this great flowering of mural art and now it's all gone," said Vanessa Gruen of New York's Municipal Arts Society. "We've covered it with underwear ads."

The District has its own rich history of mural art, though never in such density as that of New York and Philadelphia. Its remaining walls, too, are threatened as development surges through Shaw and Adams Morgan.

Philadelphia has gone the other way, at least for now. Its urban renaissance has burned slower and with less of a mercantile aesthetic. A half-dozen murals have been demolished recently -- including a Harriet Tubman painted for the Republican National Convention -- and replaced by parking lots and condos. But artists are philosophic.

"It's acrylic paint, so it has a life of 25 years anyway," said Dave McShane, the Irish Italian son of a Philadelphia plumber, who set out to be a doctor but ended up in fine arts school. "If it lasts three years, that's okay -- it's regular everyday art for regular working people."

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