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Philadelphia, the Last Stand for Urban Murals
Real Estate Appreciation Has Trumped the Art Elsewhere

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."

In fact, mural extinction seems unlikely here, not least because Golden, a dark-haired, fast-talking ball of kinetic energy, stands guard. To drive with Golden, as she steers a city-issued jeep up the old streets of Mantua and Fishtown and Kensington, is to sense her passion.

Look!

Golden hits the brakes and points to a mural of a child reaching for a star, painted across every inch of a three-story tenement wall. "All the neighbors talked about when the neighborhood was so safe that they could go up to the roof on a hot night and eat dinner and look for stars," she said. "When people can hear and see themselves, they reach a state of grace."

Golden came to her avocation by accident. She was a mural artist fresh-arrived from Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Graffiti artists were tagging -- or defacing -- walls, and Mayor W. Wilson Goode (D) formed the Anti-Graffiti Network, which hired Golden.

"They handed me a cardboard box and said: 'You'll have 1,000 kids. Good luck!' " Golden shakes her head. "The kids would draw with me for two hours and then they'd go and spray-paint all over the building."

Gradually that changed. The kids came from graffiti gangs such as the High Class Lunatics and told her they shoplifted fine-art magazines to rummage for ideas. So Golden hauled them to museums and gave them books and eventually let them paint a mural -- only if they agreed to stop spray-painting. The kids found a wall near the subway tracks, and set a fire burning in a garbage can to stay warm.

"It was completely overrun with drug dealers," she said. "Guys would come up and say, 'Lady, you're standing on my stash.' "

In the years to come she and her artists -- who come from all over the nation, and Ecuador, Mexico, Japan and Germany, and from local juvenile homes and maximum-security prisons -- would paint thousands of walls. They dodged shootouts and gang wars and negotiated boundaries in this territorial city.

No mural came harder than one on Lehigh Avenue, where the Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond neighborhoods intersect. Three years ago a local artist, Cesar Viveros-Herrera, had in mind a 300-foot-long "healing" mural against a railway wall, to be illustrated with the faces of local youths, some dead, some alive. It would be multiracial and multiethnic, and in Kensington that did not go down well.

"I had a neighbor who ragged how it was going to attract dealers," recalled Eileen Blair, 55, whose Scottish grandparents moved to Kensington in 1915. "I'm like, 'Where have you been, honey? We've had drug dealers here since the Vietnam War.' " A mediator called a meeting, and 200 neighbors walked in. Blair felt sick to her stomach, and Golden wasn't feeling any better. A local pol blasted away. Then a 12-year-old girl with a terrible stutter stood up.

Blair recalls the moment: "This girl takes the microphone and says, 'This mural is like a puzzle. If you take the pieces out, the puzzle won't work anymore. And this puzzle is our lives.' "

Blair's voice slides thin -- she's crying.

"That was it," she said. "One person after another got up and said what a great idea this mural was."

The last trace of conflict washed away as they painted. "I don't know how to describe it -- it's like ice-skating or combing a child's hair," Blair said. "You pick up the brush and your defenses come down."

Golden drove to the dedication of the "Healing Wall" months later. She expected 20, maybe 30 people. She saw a crowd of 250. She scooted around the block just to collect herself. "I saw all the people we'd argued and laughed with and I felt chills all over my body," she said. "This work is a metaphor for change. Nothing good -- nothin g -- happens just like that."

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