New art installation in jeopardy after mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez in Philly’s Gayborhood whitewashed without warning
"You can't erase our history," artist Michelle Angela Ortiz projected onto the whitewashed site of her former mural.
The mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez on the old 12th Street Gym was already scheduled to be torn down, but a sudden whitewashing of the wall Wednesday has infuriated the artist, community members and Casarez’s widow.
Now, a plan to create a new art installation to honor Casarez and also Henry Minton, a Black abolitionist who lived and worked at the same location, is in jeopardy.
“They knew by demolishing the mural as is, that would be very painful,” said mural artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, who said she would no longer work with the company that owns the property on the new art project. “They’re trying to erase their shame and guilt with the white paint, that’s what they’re trying to do.”
On Thursday, the building’s now white exterior at the corner of 12th and St. James Streets stood out in stark contrast to the now-gone vividly painted portrait of a sunlit Casarez at the center of emanating rays, a second image of her behind a bullhorn in the bottom right.
“The erasure of the mural sort of just — it really kicks up, for a lot of us, the loss of Gloria,” Tricia Dressel, Casarez’s widow, said during a phone interview Thursday morning.
“Gloria’s mural brought life to 12th Street and it celebrated Gloria’s life,” she said. “I don’t want to give too much power to the folks who took it away because they’ll never be able to take away Gloria’s legacy or her life, but losing the mural does kick up grief and loss.”
Wednesday night, Ortiz, the artist, went to the site in outrage, projected an image of her mural onto the empty wall, and tweeted, “You can’t erase our history. Right now, my mural is projected on the wall whitewashed by Midwood. I stand in solidarity with Gloria’s family and the communities she fought for.”
Ortiz said she had no prior knowledge that Midwood Investment & Development, the company that purchased the historic complex of buildings, would be whitewashing the mural. She said she had met in person with company CEO John Usdan and two other representatives on Nov. 6 and talked about salvaging portions of the mural before demolition.
The mural was painted on parachute cloth that was adhered permanently to the brick wall.
Midwood had entered into a nonbinding agreement with Mural Arts to create a new art installation, and said Thursday the whitewashing was part of an approved plan to demolish the building.
Midwood’s action, Ortiz said, “has affected all the trust and work we have been building with the community so far. My values are not in alignment with their process.”
Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted Thursday that he was “stunned” by the sudden removal of the mural. “The community was bracing for the loss of the mural due to demolition, but this act seems unnecessarily hurtful,” he said.
Mural Arts Philadelphia said it, too, would support Ortiz’s decision to step away from the project, though it had previously announced a nonbinding agreement for a $655,000 public art piece “with community engagement that honors the legacy of Gloria and pays tribute to the community.” Ortiz was to be the lead artist.
“After this unexpected development, we cannot in good conscience move forward,” the statement said. “Mural Arts Philadelphia is shocked to hear that A Tribute to Gloria Casarez has been painted out today. Casarez was a beacon of hope and possibility for the LGBTQ and Latinx community and with the loss of this iconic mural, we mourn the loss of Gloria all over again. We are consumed with deep sadness shared by Gloria’s family, the community, and the artist.”
Mural Arts said it had invested months negotiating with Midwood to create the new tribute to Casarez and Minton.
Earlier this week, Midwood’s public relations representatives issued a statement announcing a “new and more expansive art installation on South 12th Street, that would continue to honor Casarez and BIPOC LGBTQ Ancestors,” as well as Minton, in a separate art installation.
The statement said Midwood agreed to cover the full cost of the new art installation “and work closely with the community,” but made no mention of any plans to paint over the existing mural.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for Midwood said, “We intend to honor our agreement with Mural Arts. This process and demolition has been planned and approved for months.”
Some questioned Mural Arts’ role in moving ahead with its agreement with Midwood, which would get the company zoning allowances in exchange for its participation in the proposed art project.
Philadelphia preservationist Faye M. Anderson, who has worked to preserve the legacy of Minton, an elite caterer who, she said, “entertained Frederick Douglass and gave John Brown a place to stay shortly before [the] Harper’s Ferry raid,” said the entire project was erasing the elaborate and important history of the location, 204 S. 12th St.
And she said the agreement between Mural Arts and Midwood excluded the community. “They can whitewash the building, build their little, cookie-cutter high-rise, but they have to come back to the same community. Why would you alienate the very community you need to secure approval from the art commission?”
Casarez was appointed 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.
On Thursday, an angry Nutter had some expletive-laden comments. He said whatever the developer’s plans, to paint over the mural during Christmas week without notifying the artist or the widow was unconscionable.
“They have some damage to repair,” Nutter said. “It’s an issue of respect. While they may be from out of town, they’re not new here. ... They’ve been talking with these folks a long time. Do things in a manner that have some dignity about it. You don’t one day suddenly white it out. Did you think no one was going to notice?”
Thursday, the only homage to Casarez on the building was a spray-painted “Gloria” on the side that runs along narrow St. James Street.
Dressel, Casarez’s widow, said she was on a work Zoom call Wednesday morning when her cell phone began to ping incessantly with text messages. “They’re destroying the mural,” one text read.
Dressel and her current wife drove from their Wissahickon neighborhood to Center City. As they drove, Dressel said she hoped to get there in time to see the mural one last time.
Perhaps the section depicting Dressel’s and Casarez’s fingers entwined with their wedding bands would still be visible — or she could take a brick from that scene as a keepsake.
Dressel, 42, who married Casarez in 2011, arrived to find the mural “literally whitewashed,” with only a faint outline of the work seeping out beneath the white paint. An entire community memory wiped away, she said.
“When I got there, the paint was literally so fresh, I could smell the paint and I could see the outline of the images. ... The mural was completely painted over. There was just nothing.”
While Casarez’s image was prominent, the mural told a larger story. The mural depicted Casarez’s ancestors, including her great-great-grandfather, a stone mason who helped build the Ben Franklin Bridge. It detailed Casarez’s efforts to save La Milagrosa Chapel on Spring Garden Street and featured many community leaders, including Black, indigenous and other people of color.
Her mother, who died last year, helped paint one of the vignettes, as did her aunt, a cousin, Dressel’s parents, and Nutter.
”We all participated in the painting of this mural and there was just no way to say goodbye or honor it — or even just get a brick,” Dressel said.
Staff writer Valerie Russ contributed to this article.