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Above Kensington's old heroin gulch, a coat of paint and a beacon of hope

The Conrail track for decades housed an encampment for heroin users that was cleared out in August. A Mural Arts paint job is meant as a gesture that Kensington residents won't be forgotten.

A man’s shadow falls onto a section of the new mural painted on the B Street bridge in Kensington section of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. The project was led by Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and designed by artist Calo Rosa.
A man’s shadow falls onto a section of the new mural painted on the B Street bridge in Kensington section of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. The project was led by Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and designed by artist Calo Rosa.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

This is the third in an occasional series about the Kensington Storefront, a space for art and healing at the front lines of the city's opioid epidemic. Part One covered the launch; Part Two examined what it takes to make art with people in the throes of addiction.

Markees Quillen was just 13 years old when he started selling drugs along D Street in Kensington.

So, for the now-21-year-old from North Philly, it was an odd feeling to be back in the neighborhood, this time helping paint a colorful mural on a bridge over the Conrail track that has long cut a gash through the neighborhood — a 20-year-old encampment for heroin users that was cleared out in August.

"It's weird. Sometimes I feel cautious. Just being in that area, I'm like, 'Damn, I used to sell drugs there.' The same people I used to sell drugs — now I see them and they're still out there," said Quillen, who now works for the Guild program, part of Mural Arts. He invited them to paint. "I told them, 'I'm just trying to give back to y'all, because I was the one out there hurting you.'"

The brilliant splashes of color on the B Street bridge are the first large-scale signs of a Mural Arts initiative to answer the gaping wounds of poverty, disinvestment, and addiction in this neighborhood with grand gestures of hope. It was born out of the organization's Kensington Storefront, a space opened in March in collaboration with community organizations and the city's Department of Behavioral Health to test the notion that art could be part of the answer to the city's opioid crisis.

"The bridge is quite symbolic. People see this as a way of connecting the communities," Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said. "This is a project of reclaiming space. I'd like to see this be catalytic. It's my hunch that the more we can go in with beauty and color and reflect back people's aspirations, it gets people thinking about possibility."

Then, as Deputy Managing Director Joanna Otero-Cruz arrived at a Tuesday ribbon-cutting, Golden switched gears. "Four more bridges to go, right, Joanna?" she said, referring to the other overpasses along Gurney Street.

"We've got to work on the funding," Otero-Cruz warned.

Progress in Kensington has been at times slow and lurching. Plans in the works include storefront improvement initiatives, paintings on 500 boards to be installed as part of clean-and-seal efforts on vacant rowhouses around the neighborhood, and more small-scale public artworks rooted in workshops that organizers hope might steer people toward seeking help.

But there have been months of delays in obtaining those clean-and-seal boards; winter weather has foiled recent mural installation plans; the storefront rehab has been held up by red tape; and neighbors have complicated feelings as a sparkling-clean Gurney Street has flushed addicts into the surrounding neighborhoods.

The freshly painted bridge, said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, is a symbol of the city's promise.

"This is block-by-block, day-by-day, slow progress," said Quiñones-Sánchez, who heard from angry and frustrated residents in a meeting at the Storefront on Monday. "But this community is not going to be forgotten."

Still, Calo Rosa — the artist who created the colorful mural design, meant to speak to the Caribbean and Mexican heritage of many nearby residents — said the community response has also been one of gratitude.

"Every day we had people coming over to thank us," he said.  "They said, 'I never thought this day would happen.' They saw us working in the cold and brought us food or whatever they had."

A larger-scale response to the crisis, including a possible safe-injection site, remains elusive.

Meanwhile, according to Laure Biron, director of Mural Arts' Porch Light Program, more than 100 people are now coming through the Storefront on any given day, for painting and weaving workshops, open-mic nights, support groups and job-readiness programs.

Some want to get warm for just a minute. Others inquire whether there are any sandwiches. A few, if their hands are steady, sit awhile to work on an art project.

On a recent evening, Jim Alvin played Christmas music on a smartphone while leading a workshop titled Emotional Painting.

Alvin grew up in Kensington, writing graffiti under the Market-Frankford El, then used drugs there.

"I got sober eight years ago, and my whole lifestyle changed," he said. "From illegal [graffiti] to with permission only." He does anti-drug murals at schools, and installs signs for a living. He never thought he'd qualify for a Mural Arts gig, but he landed one through a Storefront initiative to create residencies for local, little-known artists.

"The idea for me is to get someone to talk about their feelings and listen to what they say," he said, "and maybe figure out where to go with it."

A man wandered in, bringing the aroma of liquor with him, and picked up a brush. He painted his name on a panel: Hakim. He declined to give his last name. He's 49, he lives in West Philly, and once had seven years clean. But it's hard to stay away from Kensington.

"It's not a life I want to continue to live,' he said. "It's so horrible."

The Storefront is like a small vacation from all that. "You're not thinking about doing nothing negative," he said.

Biron said that over time, some regulars are starting to ask for more extensive assistance: addiction treatment, psychiatric help, domestic violence counseling and shelters, inpatient detox, housing assistance.

"A person may come back several weeks in a row to an art program, or to every program that we offer," Biron said. "We know that people have to be in that contemplation period for a long time before they are really ready."

Golden's aim is to bring more symbols of hope into the neighborhood. Those will include new artworks by ESPO, a.k.a. Steve Powers, painted-over-signs repurposed from the defunct Shooter Shop at Emerald and Allegheny; an art component in Shift Capital's Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge rehabs; and many more clean-and-seal boards, painted to look like windows onto clear blue skies.

And she aspires to provide more opportunities. She'd like to add a larger workforce component and create a pipeline of resident artists.

One man brought his portfolio into the Storefront with him, and told her it had always been his dream to work for Mural Arts.

"But," he added, "I'd be a bad bet, because I have to go get help. I need to go to rehab, and I'll call you when I get back.'"