In the heart of Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, a mural depicting the late queer activist Gloria Casarez watches over South 12th Street, between St. James and Chancellor. On the wall of the shuttered 12th Street Gym, Casarez peers through rectangular-shaped glasses, and on the other side of the mural, she speaks into a bull horn in front of a small crowd.
The mural is scheduled to be destroyed as part of the property’s demolition, according to city records. However, the New York-based development company that purchased the property in 2018, Midwood Investment & Development, says that it plans to replace the mural on the 18,000-square-foot, 31-floor apartment building it plans to build.
“Midwood understands the significance of Gloria Casarez, her importance to the LGBTQ community and is dedicated to ensuring her legacy in the community,” said a spokesperson for Midwood. The company is “committed to fully funding this effort and is in discussions with the artist of the mural, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Mural Arts Philadelphia, and William Way LGBT Community Center to create a meaningful and prominent way to honor Gloria Casarez on the 12th Street frontage of the new building.”
Casarez was appointed as Philly’s first director of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender affairs in 2008 by then-Mayor Michael Nutter. A fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, affordable housing, and AIDS awareness, Casarez dedicated most of her life fighting for the social and economic well-being of marginalized communities in Philadelphia. She died in 2014 of cancer.
Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts, said Midwood sent a 60-day notice of demolition to the organization and Ortiz in the first week of September. News of the imminent removal of the mural triggered dismay among many of Casarez’s supporters. Rallies outside the building began Thursday night and the block between St. James and Chancellor was filled with chalk messages, such as “Don’t erase us,” “Save this mural,” and “Keep Gloria on 12th.”
“We understand the urgency to honor the legacy of Gloria. I think it’s critical that we hold on to people’s stories that helped make our city a better place,” Golden said. “We can’t erase their identities from our lives.” Golden said Midwood, Ortiz, and Mural Arts are in “talks” about a replacement for the mural.
“It’s painful for me to visualize this mural of Gloria being destroyed,” wrote Tricia Dressel, Casarez’s wife, in a Facebook post. “I would love to see the developers make good on their commitment to actually engaging and investing back into the community.”
A date for the replacement is unclear, which creates an air of uncertainty, said State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia), Pennsylvania’s first openly gay legislator.
“I absolutely oppose moving the mural … We are going to do everything we can to make sure it’s protected,” Sims said. The LGBTQ+ community has “very little iconography in our city, and this mural of Gloria is the most important mural in the LGBTQ and Latin[x] community. It has no business being moved.”
In 2018, when Midwood purchased the property, Sims said he asked the company to be transparent about the details of the mural’s replacement, “but none of those things happened … This project, in theory, has been on their books for years, with very little planning. I think that’s part of the problem."
As developers purchase more properties in Philadelphia, more murals are at risk of being destroyed. Development has cost the city four to six murals a year in the recent construction boom, The Inquirer reported in July.
As a result of new property development, a three-year-old Strawberry Mansion mural of John Coltrane will be obscured in a few months. Last year, a mural of Bernie Sanders was demolished.
The mural was completed in October 2015, the inaugural anniversary of Casarez’s death. In the three months prior to the completion, dozens of activists, community members, and Casarez’s friends helped bring the mural to life by pitching in with the installation process.
“I always say, I didn’t create the mural by myself but with the help of many, many people,” Ortiz said. “It was also created with love and care towards Gloria’s legacy.”
To Casarez’s longtime friend Erme Maula, the existing mural can’t be replaced.
“Gloria’s mother and her aunt who helped raise her and her cousin are all dead now. They all worked on that mural," Maula said. “You just can’t replace that." Maula is helping to bring attention to the possible erasure of Casarez’s impact, but, “with COVID, it’s a lot harder to organize.”
The petition that urges Midwood to reconsider destroying the mural has over 1,100 signatures. At Thursday’s event, Casarez’s supporters were urged to write hopeful messages on the sidewalk near the mural using chalk. Next Saturday, Oct. 17, at 5 p.m., an overnight vigil is planned in front of the mural.