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'Quick and dirty' street art drawing viewers to river

Girard Avenue in Fishtown is a gritty stretch of road crosshatched by trolley tracks, a collage of commercial signage marking both new enterprises and the ghosts of businesses past.

Girard Avenue in Fishtown is a gritty stretch of road crosshatched by trolley tracks, a collage of commercial signage marking both new enterprises and the ghosts of businesses past.

So residents took notice this summer when a different type of sign began appearing. Suddenly, handprinted fish were swimming along the sidewalks. Paper trees were growing, too - rooted onto signposts, abandoned storefronts, and the fronts of neighborhood businesses - and graphic ships were sailing by the walls of the nearby I-95 underpass at Columbia Avenue.

Most of the works were secured by thick layers of wheat paste, a medium traditionally used by underground artists (or, if you prefer, vandals), who tend to practice stealthily at night as they adorn or deface private and city property.

But in this case, the images have the backing of the community. As part of "Take Me to the River," a $1 million regional stimulus program to encourage more public access to the region's two rivers, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation is using art to guide pedestrians toward the underutilized Penn Treaty Park along the Delaware.

The vulnerable stretch of park is cut off from the neighborhood by I-95, bordered by crumbling industrial tracts, and located within blocks of the site for the planned SugarHouse Casino.

"Of course, we don't have enough money to do a giant laser show at the park every night, and so we had to come up with something quick and dirty," said Laura Semmelroth, economic development assistant at the Kensington corporation. So, the group partnered with Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program - the public-arts initiative responsible for decorating more than 2,800 city walls - and decided on wheat-pasting.

Local artist Miriam Singer, who also is designing murals for several sites on Girard Avenue, spearheaded the project starting in June, recruiting her students from E3 Power Center, an employment and education center in West Philadelphia. Of the $125,000 in grants the Kensington corporation received from the William Penn Foundation for programs relating to the park, about $5,000 was spent on this project, including for community workshops, design work, and supplies.

Singer and 10 of her students, ages 18 to 21, visited the neighborhood and the park for life-drawing sessions and used their sketches to design screen and relief prints of plants, trees, boats, and bridges. Some images were affixed with homemade wheat paste - a blend of flour and water that can decompose over a period of weeks or months. Others were more permanent, painted on parachute cloth and secured to walls with Nova Gel, a waterproof acrylic paste that could last for years.

Mural Arts representatives met with the Fishtown Business Association and community members to approve a selection of images. Then, the artists went door to door with a binder of final images, so business owners and residents could select which ones they wanted on their properties.

It took some explaining to the neighbors - and in one misunderstanding, a piece was actually covered up by the city's Anti-Graffiti Network, said Shari Hersh, program manager for Mural Corps, the teen outreach and education arm of Mural Arts.

"It was a really interesting process because we were on the street meeting the neighbors," Hersh said. "It's really relevant and it can be accessed in a similar way [to typical wheat paste or graffiti art], and yet it can be done legally and beautifully."

By August, more than 60 residents and businesses asked for 100 to 150 images to be pasted along Girard and Columbia Avenues.

The experimental project may be the first time Mural Arts has attempted to use wheat paste to help a community, but it was part of a larger plan by the city-funded program to expand the scope of its work.

Mural Arts is adding other temporary works to its efforts, like a projection mural in University City, or the semi-permanent spray-paint and sign-paint murals dubbed "Loveletters" recently installed along the Market-Frankford line in West Philadelphia.

And Mural Arts is planning another wheat-paste project this fall in central North Philadelphia, where artists Carl Pope and Homer Jackson will work with local children to design and disseminate posters highlighting the neighborhood's entrepreneurs. The group also plans to place the images in SEPTA advertising spaces such as bus shelters and on city buses.

Ramik Accooe, 20, who worked on the wheat-pastes in Fishtown, said the immediacy of these kinds of projects can be very satisfying. "People actually paid attention to it and asked us about it and went to where we were trying to get them to go," he said. "I really liked that."

Now, Semmelroth is waiting to see whether these artistic efforts, along with community initiatives like last Saturday's River City Festival at Penn Treaty, initiate a lasting relationship between the river and the neighborhood. In the meantime, the wheat-pastes and the Waterfront Wednesdays concert series held at Penn Treaty (also part of "Take Me to the River") have drawn some first-time visitors to the park and have built a buzz of enthusiasm about open spaces on the waterfront. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Community talks are about to begin on a new master plan for Penn Treaty Park - suggestions include a cantilevered fishing pier, glass canopies for a farmers market, a cafe, a children's play area, a marina, and wetlands - but there's no funding yet to execute it. Meanwhile, the SugarHouse Casino is set to break ground this month about a quarter-mile away.

Still, Semmelroth says, getting the community excited through art was a small but meaningful victory.

"I was afraid people weren't going to like the wheat-paste, but they loved it," she says. "Everyone we approached about it wanted one. I thought that was really positive."