Everybody knows that Philadelphia's got murals. No less than 3,600 murals have been created in Philly since 1984. If you've never heard it, the story of the Mural Arts Program is a good one.
In 1984, Philadelphia had problems. Still does, you might say. But the problems were definitely worse in 1984. The mayor at the time, Wilson Goode (the first black mayor of Philadelphia), started a program to end graffiti. Graffiti was by no means the biggest complaint for Philadelphians, who were beset with all manner of crime, urban decay, and economic malaise. But the mayor figured that every little bit helped. To fix the graffiti problem, the city hired a muralist named Jane Golden to convince graffiti writers to take up mural making. It seemed like a shot in the dark.
But Jane Golden was the right person for the job. She didn't condescend to the kids making graffiti. She tried to understand them and she helped them to understand her. Together with Jane, the graffiti kids of Philly started to create works of mural art on walls all over the city. Now, almost thirty years since the program started, it is a success beyond anyone's wildest imagination. A city that looked like hell in 1984 is now regularly referred to as "the City of Murals."
In the years since the mid-80s, the idea for what constitutes a "mural" has been expanded and redefined. To see what I mean, head out toward North Philly on North Broad Street. You'll go past Lehigh Avenue and begin crossing a stretch of train tracks. This was once Philadelphia's garment district. It is a somewhat bleak neighborhood today, though the mix of immigrant shops has given it more life in recent years. Along the fence that separates the sidewalk from the train tracks you'll notice some hanging rugs. Well, they aren't rugs, exactly.
They are weavings that constitute a mural known as Wall of Rugs #2. The artist is named Kathryn Pannepacker. Pannepacker works with textiles. In this case, she's collected weaving material from around the neighborhood, sometimes in the form of what most of us would call trash, and worked these materials into an interconnected, more than 100-foot long squishy mural. The panels of the mural each represent textiles from different countries. In planning the mural, Pannepacker talked to all the people in the neighborhood. Many of the designs on the mural came from suggestions made by those passing by. Many of the materials were given to her by people in the area.
Philadelphia is not a city of textile manufacture anymore. In fact, all of Philadelphia's manufacturing history is behind it, as is true for most of America's industrial cities. This created a dilemma. What do you do with neighborhoods that no longer have their reason for being? Wall of Rugs poses no answers to this question. What it does instead is throw a rug down. Have you ever seen a room that wasn't improved by a nice, colorful, thick woven rug? Impossible. Rugs always make things better. Rugs say, "Everything is going to be OK." That's how you'll feel on North Broad Street near Lehigh Avenue now. At least for 100 feet or so.