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Mural Arts is flooding Kensington with public art. But is that what the neighborhood needs?

“It happened at a time when Kensington was reaching its breaking point, with people on the street and using, and people having very different ideas about which direction Kensington should be going."

Participants in Mural Arts' day-labor program, Color Me Back, paint a mural on an underpass on Emerald Street in Kensington.
Participants in Mural Arts' day-labor program, Color Me Back, paint a mural on an underpass on Emerald Street in Kensington.Read moreMural Arts

On a sunny fall afternoon, a vacant lot on East Stella Street in Kensington transformed abruptly from a dusty, blighted gap in the landscape to a buzzing arts center.

In one shady corner, Trapeta Mayson, the city’s poet laureate, ran a drop-in poetry workshop, inviting kids to play around with word tiles and adults to experiment with free verse. Nearby, children and adults seated at a long table painted colorful abstractions. Neighbors, seeing the activity, strolled over, lingered on their stoops or, perhaps inspired by the activity on the block, took to sweeping the sidewalks.

Then, before nightfall, all of it vanished.

It was one of dozens of pop-up events, modest in scale but expansive in ambition, that have sprouted around Kensington in an effort by Mural Arts Philadelphia to flood the neighborhood with public art projects large and small. Called the Kensington Wellness Initiative, it represents a rethinking of a bold — and at times controversial — bet by that Mural Arts that an “art storefront” on Kensington Avenue could serve people in addiction through a harm reduction model while creating a cultural hub for the entire community.

That storefront, modeled on a thriving arts hub the organization runs in South Philadelphia, was shut down last year — first by the pandemic, then for good after a city inspector found it lacked proper zoning. It was a peculiar turn of events for a city-funded operation launched in 2017 with the city managing director, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities (DBHIDS) commissioner and district City Council member all in attendance.

Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said she decided not to fight the zoning issue.

Even though the storefront drew about a thousand visitors each month for art classes, support groups and poetry readings, and served many more as a Code Blue warming center during cold snaps, she realized that many neighborhood residents didn’t feel comfortable going there. Others, already engaged in a heated debate over the idea of a safe-injection site in the neighborhood, saw its work as of a piece with the needle exchange and naloxone giveaways elsewhere on Kensington Avenue.

“It happened at a time when Kensington was reaching its breaking point, with people on the street and using, and people having very different ideas about which direction Kensington should be going in and who gets supports,” Golden said.

Bill McKinney, a longtime resident of the McPherson Square area and head of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., said the Code Blue periods were a turning point. His organization had been involved in the storefront, but pulled back after it was repurposed as a warming center. “Our staff is not equipped or trained to work with these populations,” McKinney said.

He likened the situation to the one in McPherson Square, which many residents and families now avoid because of open drug use there: a hollow promise of a shared space. And, like the daily needle clean-ups in McPherson and the portable bathrooms set out in response to the latest hepatitis A outbreak, he said it seemed like one more Band-Aid for the self-inflicted wounds the city has brought on Kensington by allowing its drug markets to flourish.

» READ MORE: Business and bloodshed: Inside Kensington's heroin economy

“What folks in Kensington were saying was: ‘Not again. You can’t again impose something on the community,’” McKinney said.

For months, Mural Arts puzzled over how to move forward: fight to reopen the storefront, or relocate it away from the chaos of Kensington Avenue. In the end, they chose a third option: “All of Kensington has been traumatized,” Golden said. “So can we spread our work out to reach more people?”

(DBHIDS, which had been a partner in the storefront, declined an interview request and instead provided a statement saying the storefront had not closed but merely relocated, referencing a Mural Arts office in the Community Center at Visitation. That space, however, is not open to the public.)

This more diffuse approach, in the spirit of harm reduction, aims to meet people quite literally where they are. That means pop-up events in vacant lots, plans for a roving mural-mobile, and workshops run in collaboration with area senior centers, libraries, public health organizations and civic groups. One staffer even takes her guitar to McPherson Square for impromptu music therapy sessions with anyone who happens to wander over.

There are also more than 20 new murals completed or underway. One, set to flicker to life on Dec. 15 on Kensington Avenue, will be a line of poetry rendered in neon. It’s crowdsourced and composed by Mayson, who said she’s attempting to distill “the authentic voice of a community” into a single 60-character line.

» READ MORE: Philly frontline workers share their experiences treating addiction during pandemic

In many of its projects, Mural Arts is now trying to let the community lead. To that end, the organization developed a board game that aims to help people identify assets and set priorities. It also started a number of microgrant funds to help people bring creative ideas to fruition.

One resident, Milagros Aquino Matos, brought the pop-up event to Stella Street through a program Mural Arts calls Lots & Lots of Love. Matos, who was trained as a “community connector” by the nonprofit HACE, is already a leader on her block, running weekly food distribution, distributing planters, and helping older and illiterate residents navigate bureaucratic roadblocks.

Now, she said, “people look to me for help and give weight to my suggestions.” She hopes to use her newfound clout, and the goodwill from the pop-up, to turn the vacant lot into a permanent play space and garden — an anchor to stabilize a block that’s frequently beset by the spillover from whatever activity (or law enforcement response) is occurring in Hope Park, just around the corner.

Many of the microgrant projects residents have pitched are not aspirational, instead speaking to basic quality of life issues. Some are community clean-ups, albeit dressed up with a DJ, recycling bin giveaways, or native plant landscaping. One clean-up organizer collected oral histories of Ross Park, framing the grunt work in narrative.

Shari Hersh, who heads Mural Arts’ environmental justice arm, said the modest scale of these projects shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of vision. Her long-term goal is to empower residents to advocate for themselves and to address the root causes, like the city’s failure to license haulers and regulate dumping.

“These are systemic problems, and investing in people so we can get to the level of taking it on in a systemic way is really important,” she said. “There’s a role for art because we go through the door of imagination and connection.”

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the organization is running programs meant for people who are unhoused or in addiction. They’ve also started a day-labor program, paying people who face barriers to the formal job market $50 for three-hour shifts painting a 250-foot-long mural in an underpass. The design suggests a “garden of rare and resilient plants,” rendered slightly differently by each painter. That way, lead artist Mat Tomezsko said, “There’s a little bit of empowerment.”

» READ MORE: Mural Arts launched a program to put homeless people to work. Here's what happened.

Though Color Me Back shifts are awarded by online lottery, occasionally workers do come from a small encampment huddled on the block. During a recent visit, city workers were posting signs warning of impending “service day” during which the sidewalk would be cleared of tents and debris.

Kevin McCloskey, a Kensington resident who started out doing day work with Mural Arts and was recently hired on to a more permanent role, said he sees the mural as a beacon. “I believe it’s going to make a difference here. I hope it does. Look at all the participants we have.”

To those who believed in the Storefront, though, something is missing.

Roz Pichardo, who works with the harm-reduction nonprofit Prevention Point, used to work at the Storefront. But she also spent free time there, unwinding at the end of stressful days. “That was the only place folks could go not only to receive services, but also a cup of hot coffee, or linkages to DBHIDS.”

She and others reversed more than 400 overdoses while working there, she said. “That’s 400 lives saved because the Storefront was existing. Now what do people do, when they have nowhere to run to get Narcan? It’s probably looking different now for the people who are out living on Kensington and Somerset.”

Now, she runs art and music workshops at the empty lot near Prevention Point, some of them in conjunction with Mural Arts.

“We’ve been trying to replace it with stuff,” she said. “I’m just trying to find a way so people can express their frustrations, express themselves.”