The Art of Transformation

A tour of Philadelphia's neighborhood murals illustrates the power of communities to renew themselves


Cover Story

June 06, 2004|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

One great thing about visiting Philadelphia is that you can see so much without ever leaving the square mile of tourist heaven surrounding Independence Hall -- and the other great thing is what you find when you do.

Every day, dozens of excursions depart from Independence Visitor Center into the Philadelphia beyond. Tourists climb into horse-drawn carriages, double-decker buses and funny-looking land-and-water vehicles called Ducks. They put on headphones for an outdoor multimedia show, and cluster around tour guides and head out for walking tours.

On Saturday mornings, there's a queue for another attraction, a trolley tour that makes a two-hour circuit of one of five inner-city neighborhoods, where riders see and hear the stories behind the city's enormous and unique collection of community murals.

It's an outdoor art show, it's an unusual view of Philadelphia, it's a way to spend a couple of hours off one's feet -- but more profoundly, the Mural Arts tour offers visitors the chance to venture beyond the shrine of our democracy and into one of its crucibles.

Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, celebrating its 20th anniversary in October, has transformed nearly 2,400 empty, scarred walls around the city with monumental paintings: landscapes, dreamscapes, historic and inspirational montages, portraits ranging in subject from neighborhood children and activists to Wilt Chamberlain, Patti LaBelle and Frank Sinatra.

Each of these images is the product of an intense collaboration between an artist, a community and a program that turns public and private funds for urban beautification, at-risk youth and other worthy causes into reality.

There's a brilliantly colored frieze of sunflowers and a meditation garden, say, on the site of a murder. There's a truly colossal fresco depicting a dozen hands interlaced -- all skin colors, all ages -- in an area nationally known for interracial violence.

And a Puerto Rican farm scene is rendered in soft shades of maize and tobacco on a block full of immigrants from that island -- a window into their shared remembered world.

A moving experience

If you stumbled on any one of these images, you might well be impressed, but you would miss the impact of seeing them as a collection, of sorts, with a guide.

Annemarie Viereckl, a visitor from Munich, Germany, remembers running into several huge, striking murals on side streets and around corners during her earlier visits to Philadelphia and stopping in her tracks. "We don't really have murals in Germany," she says. "The tour gave me the chance to see them in a much more attentive way."

"It's the stories that get you," says two-time mural tour rider Deborah Hutcheson of West Reading, Pa. She recalls the reaction of her sister, a painter who lives in San Francisco.

"I wanted to take her and my parents on the tour while she was visiting, but she was a little iffy about the idea," Hutcheson recalls. "She said she just wasn't a mural person. But then during the tour she turned to me and said, 'I have a lump in my throat.' She was so moved."

One trend in travel is ecotourism -- travel with a conscience, travel that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people. Usually, ecotourism is associated with natural places, but what Mural Arts offers might be called urban eco-tourism, the chance to see and support not only visually stimulating art but also the transformation of brutalized and forgotten neighborhoods into places of which people are proud.

For the first decade of the mural program's operation -- it was originally called the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network -- there was no tour aspect at all. It focused on working with juvenile offenders and trained artists to eradicate tagging (the spray-painted logos left by graf-fiti writers) and paint community murals.

But by 1994, there was so much interest in the art that had been created in parts of Philadelphia, which many locals had never even seen, that the first guided tour was offered. It was quickly oversubscribed. When a second annual trip was added a few years later, it only scratched the surface of the waiting list.

In 2001, a tourism development grant allowed Mural Arts to throw open its doors more widely. Today, people can view the murals on the trolley trips, bike tours, and at "Murals and Meals" events that include visits to neighborhood restaurants, as well as on self-guided walking and driving tours.

According to tour program coordinator Marisa Kitsock, "the tours seem to fill up as fast we add them, and these days about a quarter of the participants come from out of town."

Cinco de Mayo tour

The hometowns of riders on a recent Saturday morning tour stretched from distant parts of Pennsylvania to Munich. Anne-marie Viereckl was part of a group of friends brought along by local attorney Stephen Seeling, himself back for his second trip on the trolley, having done South Philadelphia last year.

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