Nestled among the dusty Virgin Mary statues and faded silk flowers displayed in the front windows of South Philly rowhouses, there is an elaborate painted portrait of a naked Gritty that reads: “STAY HOME! IT’S ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR AND YOU DON’T NEED PANTS!”
The artist and homeowner behind the design, Erin Turner, 40, said while she’s decorated her window for holidays before, this quarantine-and-Gritty-inspired design is her first big display.
“It brought me a lot of joy to make it, and just hearing the fun reactions from people, knowing that for this hot second they walk by this window it puts a smile on their face in this time when it’s hard to smile, it makes me happy,” Turner said.
In Philadelphia — a city of rowhouses — where front windows often serve as personal message boards and avant-garde art showcases, residents separated from the city they love and quarantined from their neighbors are creating coronavirus-themed window displays to stay connected.
“Your windows are a way of talking to the 'hood, at this time, especially” said Carolyn Wyman, who created “The Upside of Lockdown" window display at her South Philly home. “Even when we can’t directly communicate, there are still ways.”
While window displays span the city, perhaps they are nowhere more prevalent than in South Philadelphia, where tradition, religion, culture, kitsch, and Philly pride are always in your face.
“The South Philly window display game is so strong,” said Turner, who studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. “I felt like I needed to put myself up to the challenge.”
Even though Easter has long passed, crosses made of palm leaves are still displayed in South Philly windows next to Virgin Mary statues, prayer cards, and Virgin Mary statues holding prayer cards.
Tibetan prayer flags hang in windows across the street from Eagles flags, while cherub figurines, Vishnu statues, and a severed doll head in a flowerpot keep watch from their perches.
And across the neighborhood, vigilant dogs and fat cats sun themselves on window sills next to broken lava lamps, fake flowers, and animal skeletons (both real and fake).
In one window, a taxidermy chicken pecks like Sisyphus at a seed she’ll never reach, and in another, a sign alerts thieves that the copper piping in the home has been changed to PVC (try and sell that at the scrap yard).
Pennsport resident Maria Qualtieri, 25, a freelance fashion stylist, has been documenting South Philly window displays since 2018 on her Instagram account, @southphillywindowdisplays. She said they remind her of how her own grandmother used to “go crazy” decorating for the holidays.
“I really loved how kitschy the windows were and the colorful accent they brought to the neighborhood,” she said.
Qualtieri said she has two favorite displays, the first of which was a more traditional Valentine’s Day display she captured in 2018.
The second was a very artistic — and slightly sadistic — Gritty window design from Halloween 2018 that read “One, two Gritty’s coming for you.”
“It was shortly after the Flyers introduced him and the city wasn’t sure if they loved or were scared of him,” she said.
When the pandemic hit and coronavirus displays started popping up, Qualtieri said people began tagging her account in their posts. She received photos of a Frozen-themed “Kingdom of Isolation” display and another inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas that read: “Stay inside and you shall see in this town of QUARANTINE.”
“It’s really been such a wonderful sense of community and my goal is to use the page to spread that message further,” she said.
Walking through the streets of South Philly today, the most prevalent displays (after the fake flowers and Virgin Mary statues) are pictures of hand-drawn rainbows completed by kids to spread cheer as part of a coronavirus-era scavenger hunt.
But creative adults have found ways to spread cheer — and subtle messaging — too. On a stoop across from Termini Bros. Bakery, one family has set up a life-size dummy in an Eagles jersey, Eagles cap, and a face mask. Because right now, being a good sport is about more than football.
Several blocks away, in the front window of another South Philly rowhouse, a large portrait of artist Frida Kahlo is joined by five smaller portraits of people wearing masks.
Messages written on the individuals’ masks read: “MOTHER POWER," “THANK YOU HEALTH CARE & ESSENTIAL WORKERS,” and “Whatever happens, I LOVE you." Two of the masks read “I RUN WITH MAUD,” a reference to Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed black man who was shot to death by two white men while jogging in Georgia earlier this year.
Among the more epic South Philly coronavirus displays is Wyman’s four-panel “The Upside of Lockdown.” Each of her bay window panels contains a look-on-the-bright-side message, along with related tchotchkes.
Wyman, 63, a freelance writer (she has written for The Inquirer) who also runs the “Taste of Philly” food tour at Reading Terminal Market, said even though she and her husband have lived in South Philly for 12 years, they’re still regarded as “kind of newbies."
While they have decorated their windows with various pop culture knickknacks before, Wyman said this was her first bold display.
The first panel of her display, which is dedicated to the Phillies, reads: “Phillies can’t play = Phillies can’t lose!”
The second features a drawing of an orange cat and reads “More face time with the cat.” Panel three is a Styrofoam tray with a very sad lunch on it that says: “No school but also no school lunch." And the fourth panel features a blonde mannequin bust wearing a face mask and the words: “Mask hides pimples!”
“It’s a little out there. When I first put it up I felt a little shy,” Wyman said. “But the direct neighbors haven’t said anything, so I’d say no news is good news.”
What Wyman said she enjoys most about her display is the joy it elicits from passersby.
“Our bedroom is right above that room and in the morning, sometimes I hear someone laughing and talking to their kid about it,” she said. “It’s a nice way to wake up.”
Wyman said her window-display “muse” is another South Philly resident she’s never met — a man who decorates his window-unit air conditioner for every holiday. At Christmastime, he even wraps it like a big present, complete with a bow, she said.
“The thing about the air-conditioner guy is in some ways, he’s a greater artist than I am because his palette is so much smaller," she said.
That “air-conditioner guy” is 87-year-old Carmen Christinzio, a South Philly lifer who’s lived in the same rowhouse for 55 years.
“Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving — they all come around and take pictures of my air conditioner!” he said.
Christinzio said he began decorating his windows and air conditioner about 10 years ago, after his wife died. He usually only does it for holidays, but after he took down his Easter display this year, he was compelled to create one about the coronavirus.
He put a sheet of plastic over the back of the unit, to which he taped in large letters the words: “HANG IN.”
Christinzio then found a small poster of The Honeymooners in his house and used blue masking tape to give them all face masks — even Jackie Gleason. He added the words "Cover up” and “Wash hands” and placed it in his front window.
“I only had that one in my window and my daughter said ‘This is a new generation, they don’t know who The Honeymooners are!’" Christinzio recalled. “So I went up and got my son’s KISS picture.”
Down the middle of the picture of the members of KISS, Christinzio spelled out the words “Stay in” and above it, he wrote: “KIZZ Corona good by."
Now, his coronavirus display is one for the ages.
“I took my time and I did it,” he said. “And I’ll leave it up until this is all over with.”
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