Murals in Philadelphia have been created, variously, to uplift underserved communities, honor local leaders, fight blight, and amplify grassroots causes. Now, in a swath of the city's Callowhill area, they're advancing a new goal: rebranding a neighborhood.
Artists commissioned by the city's Mural Arts Program are installing nine permanent and temporary murals that, collectively, create a revolving outdoor gallery billed as "Spring Arts District." That also happens to be the identity that developer Craig Grossman, who sought and partially funded the project, is trying to cultivate in this gentrifying stretch between Eighth and 12th, from Noble to Spring Garden Streets.
This developer-driven model diverges from the traditional, bottom-up Mural Arts process, which is open to any applicant with a wall and an idea. It's also a novel approach to creating a sense of place, engineered by Grossman's Arts & Crafts Holdings. The company entered the neighborhood just last year and bought about a dozen properties in the vicinity of the planned elevated rail park, reflecting an investment of more than $20 million.
With it, the developer brings a vision to recast the area - alternately known as Callowhill, Chinatown North, the Loft District, Trestletown, and even Eraserhood (a nod to filmmaker David Lynch) - as Spring Arts, a center for the creative class.
"I'm an art lover, personally and publicly. I know, obviously, the power that it has to ignite change," Grossman said. He figured art could also attract a new constituency. Branding the area as Spring Arts, making it one big outdoor gallery, "provides it with an identity that area's been lacking."
Some longtime residents don't see it that way.
"This neighborhood has a surfeit of names," said Callowhill Neighborhood Association president Sarah McEneaney, a painter who was making art there long before Spring Arts was coined. She's a fan of Arts & Crafts, but she'd just as soon it restrict the branding to its own projects. She thinks "Spring Arts in Callowhill" would do the job.
Grossman previously worked for Tony Goldman - who led the redevelopment and rebranding of another neighborhood, the stretch of South 13th Street that marketers and the public alike now recognize as Midtown Village. Public art was a key move in Goldman's playbook. In 2009, he turned a warehouse district in Miami into Wynwood Walls, a destination for street art. And in 2011, he worked with Mural Arts to adorn Midtown Village with a collection of works by well-known artists, including Kenny Scharf, Vhils, and Gaia.
"So, in Callowhill, Craig called me up, and he presented his vision about this district that would have an abundance of art," Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said. "We drew up a menu of ideas for him, and he thought it would really be great . . . to create a rotating gallery."
The company put up $30,000, which covered half the cost of the murals, and provided wall space and other surfaces. Mural Arts matched that and also funded an art-education component. Arts & Crafts will also provide space for a Mural Arts youth art hub, where, starting in June, teens can learn design and entrepreneurship and exhibit their work.
"This is a wonderful template for how artists and developers can cross paths," Golden said. She's already talking to another developer about collaborating in South Philadelphia.
One morning last week, artist Ryan Beck was using a large brush and a roller to lay down patches of gray and tan house paint on a newly primed brick-and-cinder-block surface. He had been told his painting, on a building partially occupied by a martial arts gym at 1016 Buttonwood St., has an expiration date; the developer plans to knock out the brick and replace it with large windows.
"They told me there's no budget if it gets defaced," he said. But he's philosophical about it. "You're putting it out there so people can interact with it."
Also there was a photographer from a marketing firm called Creative Outlet, hired by Arts & Crafts Holdings to make a time-lapse video of the mural as it took shape.
Grossman prefers it that way. He notes he didn't coin the name Spring Arts, which has been around at least since the Spring Arts Point development was built a decade ago. (Inquirer coverage at the time called the area simply North Philadelphia.)
"We're helping to promote it, but it's not something we're taking ownership of," he said. "It's something that should hopefully be a little more organic."
It's not there yet.
Michael Pasquarello, who lived in the area for about a decade and who owns Cafe Lift, Prohibition Taproom, and Bufad, all on 13th Street, calls the area Chinatown North.
"The Realtors had coined the term Loft District, which I don't think anyone was excited about. There was a big push to call it Trestletown," he said. "I think the Spring Arts district sounds really awesome."
To Robert Cheetham - who is on the board of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association and is chief executive of Azavea, a tech company that was one of Arts & Crafts' first tenants - it's Callowhill.
"I've yet to hear anyone use the term Spring Arts other than to describe the investment thesis of Arts & Crafts Holdings," he said. "Word meanings are a product of people using them. Until people start using them, there's not much to talk about."
Still, he said, members of the civic group welcome the ambition. "A group that's not only investing dollars in the neighborhood but actually has a vision for the kind of future they'd like to see is incredibly refreshing," he said.
Arts & Crafts, in early marketing materials, pledged to "transform" the area, using public art as a "primary igniter."
Its major projects - which include seven-story buildings at 990 Spring Garden and 448 N. 10th St., and a six-story building at 1027 Ridge Ave. - are in various stages of redevelopment. The company also applied for a $3.5 million state redevelopment-assistance grant.
Such grants were put on hold during protracted state budget battles.
In the meantime, Grossman is looking ahead to the next call for artists, in October. He and Golden hope there will be painters, but also yarn-bombers and fence-weavers.
Golden has other projects planned for the area. Mural Arts brought in a historian, a video artist, and the American Composers Forum to collaborate on a visual and performative work centered on the rail park. And Golden recently met with the Friends of the Rail Park to discuss a collection of murals visible from the park.
She hopes additional developers there will consider the potential for art in their projects.
"Art," she said, "can actually be the thread that binds the community with those who are creating new spaces."