A block captain for almost a quarter-century, Lucille Fletcher, 84, spends hours sitting on her porch, looking out over the 1300 block of 46th Street in West Philly. She chats with neighbors. She invites public workers to enjoy lunch breaks on her outdoor sofa. She says hello to University of the Sciences students, coming in and out of the residence hall that opened across from her house earlier this year.
“I am this neighborhood,” said Fletcher, better known as “Ms. Lucille,” on a recent Friday morning. “I don’t take crap from nobody. Everybody come to me, about everything, and if someone’s causing trouble and they see me coming, they know I’ll be calling the cops.”
Thanks to a gift given to her two years ago, Fletcher’s eyes now watch the street 24 hours a day, even when she’s not physically there. They peek out from behind a flower planter on her porch, painted onto a piece of brick.
In 2017, the University of the Sciences bought the property across from Fletcher’s house. It had been the site of the Alexander Wilson Elementary School, closed in 2013 by the School Reform Commission as a cost-cutting measure.
That summer, Fletcher befriended the crew in charge of demolition. As the school was knocked to the ground, along with it went a Mural Arts Philadelphia mural, Doorway to Achievement, that had risen high across the school’s front wall. Focused on a theme of education, it featured students engaging in activities like playing the piano, peering into a telescope, and typing on a computer, each floating in standalone rectangles. Two tall copper doors were at its center, one opening to reveal an image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, designed to depict a world of future opportunities.
Standing between the two doors stood Fletcher, painted with the same deep rouge lipstick she wears today and an intense gaze toward 46th Street.
“One day they were sitting on my steps having lunch, and the boss said he was going to bring me the piece with my face on it,” said Fletcher. “I thought he was kidding, but a few days later, he actually showed up with it. I was shocked.”
The 2-foot-long, parallelogram-shaped chunk of brick now leans against the bricks of her own home. It takes over as the eyes of the neighborhood when Fletcher can’t be there, standing in for several days this past July when Fletcher was rushed to the hospital for congestive heart failure.
“She makes herself known to everyone, and when she’s gone, people immediately notice,” said David L. Forde, Jr., University of the Sciences’s vice president of community and government affairs, noting that an impromptu party formed on her porch as soon as she returned home. “Her neighbors look to her leadership to bring a voice to what they collectively desire, and she’s been a fierce advocate on their behalf since we moved in.”
Forde noted that Fletcher has chimed in on everything from the university’s street lighting to the students’ move-in day process, trying to ensure that the new residents remain respectful to the neighborhood.
Although now hooked up to an oxygen tank, she’s an avid attendee of community meetings, making sure her voice is heard, as well as those of her neighbors. It was in one such meeting, held with staff from the University of the Sciences, that a discussion formed about the importance of the original Doorway to Achievement mural. The university listened, and agreed to leave an “empty canvas” on its new residence building for the mural to be repainted.
Soon, Fletcher will get to see herself again on the building that faces her home.
“It’s a rather unprecedented situation,” said Mural Arts Philadelphia executive director Jane Golden. “Often in these situations, all you hear are problems between the community and the developers, and in this case, the University of the Sciences reached out to us well in advance because they heard the community, which is rare.”
Artist Jon Laidacker is now designing a re-creation similar to that of his original mural, conceptualized 12 years ago with the input of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders from the Alexander Wilson Elementary School.
Set to be complete by next spring, the new version will closely resemble the original, with a few small additions. For instance, it will incorporate imagery of students from Penn Alexander School, located a few blocks away. Fletcher will remain in place between the towering copper doors.
“I got to know her immediately — she almost felt like my work-side grandma,” said Laidacker, recalling his experience painting the original mural. “She’d come out every day to watch me, and was always making sure I put on my sunblock, sometimes asking if I wanted lemonade or cookies.”
At the time, Laidacker decided he wanted Fletcher to become the sentinel of the mural. One Saturday morning, he knocked on her door, and asked if he could take her photograph.
“He told me I’d be up on the wall by Sunday. I got out of church and there I was,” recalled Fletcher. “My sons are boxers, and I was a boxing trainer. I’ve had a lot of great memories throughout my life — I’m in a Sports Illustrated article, I was a [boxing] judge, I was on the David Letterman show — but this was among the best of them.”
In August, Laidacker hosted a community paint day, inviting neighborhood residents to create the initial brushstrokes of the new mural’s first layer of color. Fletcher joined for about two hours, adding shades of blue to a polyester cloth that will eventually span across a 40-foot-tall wall of the University of Sciences building.