Natalie Shaak saw a need, decided to take matters into her own hands, and has now inspired an entire neighborhood — with a soft pretzel and a raccoon.
Back in December, Shaak bought her first home next to a playground at Thompson and Sergeant Streets in the city's Port Richmond neighborhood. At the time, she thought the side of her home would be a "prime" spot for a mural.
"I definitely wanted a mural on there in some way," said the 34-year-old events manager for the Graduate College at Drexel University.
Shaak was dismayed to find the playground, which has only one piece of run-down equipment, was used mostly by adults and filled with trash, including discards from customers of a nearby Wawa, drug needles, and cigarette butts.
So, she took matters into her own hands and started a GoFundMe page to raise money.
"The playground equipment is old, rundown, damaged, dirty, and even tagged with graffiti. To say it is bleak is an understatement," she said on the GoFundMe page. "But we as a community can make a difference by taking action."
Shaak partnered with V.U.R.T. (Visual Urban Renewal & Transformation, the group responsible for the mural of the SEPTA token-eating squirrel), and started the GoFundMe page to raise money for a mural of a pretzel-eating raccoon. (Seeing the theme here?)
"People in Philly are struggling and this playground is a picture of that struggle," she wrote on GoFundMe.
The $5,000 GoFundMe goal was for painting the mural and then fixing up the playground — repainting benches, adding secure trash cans, improving signage, and eventually replacing broken equipment.
It took one month and 58 donors to come up with $4,100.
V.U.R.T showed Shaak a ready-to-roll mural of a soft pretzel-eating racoon designed by Evan Lovett, a Fishtown tattoo artist.
"Oh, yeah. I totally want it," Shaak recalls thinking. "I am a fan of Philly soft pretzels."
Shaak has been in contact with the city's Parks and Recreation Department and plans to apply for a city grant for more improvement and another from SugarHouse Casino. V.U.R.T. has agreed to supply two new trash cans — with a cool design of some kind.
But first she wants to hear from her neighbors, many of whom she has met since the mural was painted and who are excited about the change. A meeting is planned for Oct. 14 at 1 p.m. to talk over the possibilities for what could go in the space.
"This is a diamond in the rough," Shaak said. "It could be a hub for everyone in the neighborhood to gather."