The threat to a John Coltrane mural shows how development can erase Black history in Philly
Development has cost Philadelphia four to six murals a year amid the recent construction boom. The latest threatened is a John Coltrane memorial in Strawberry Mansion.
Awash in blues that blend into the sky on clear days, the mural of jazz great John Coltrane on the side of a rowhouse depicts the saxophonist gazing over Strawberry Mansion, the Philadelphia neighborhood he called home more than 60 years ago.
Alongside the mural, construction workers lay the foundation for an apartment building that in a few months will obscure a significant portion of the image. For the second time in less than a decade, a Coltrane mural in the artist’s old neighborhood will be ruined by development.
“You understand that everything has a life span,” said Ernel Martinez, the mural’s artist. “The reality is the city is growing, and the city’s changing, and you just deal with it.”
The developer whose building will block Coltrane’s likeness at 29th and Diamond Streets has promised to donate $25,000 to replace the mural, which has existed for just three years. Its predecessor, a depiction of Coltrane at Diamond and Douglas Streets, was demolished in 2014 by the developer Pennrose Co. after being created in 2002.
A community outcry about the threat to the newer mural, though, is not just about public art. Fights over murals can be proxies for larger tensions over Philadelphia’s development, and questions about who cities lionize with monuments.
“That’s what public art is about: public memory, public memorialization,” said Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that began with a focus on Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. “These public memorials really have social impact, and that’s what these developers don’t recognize.”
She’s still mourning the loss of murals depicting the 20th-century Black printmaker and painter Dox Thrash. One at 26th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue was covered over while the building was in the process of a HUD foreclosure in 2012. A replacement created in 2015 at 16th Street and Girard Avenue was mostly hidden by development two years later.
Strawberry Mansion has been home to about 100 murals through Mural Arts Philadelphia, a nonprofit that for more than 35 years has used public and private funds to sponsor murals citywide. Citywide, 65% of the organization’s murals depict Black individuals or themes, said Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ founder and executive director.
Impermanence is an implicit reality of the art form, Golden said. In that time, the organization has sponsored about 4,200 murals in Philadelphia. About 2,500 still exist.
“It’s part of the nature of the beast,” said Martinez, who has lost track of the number of Philadelphia murals he’s made in the last 20 years. “You understand that everything has a life span. You value them more while they are around.”
Development has cost the city four to six murals a year in the recent construction boom, Golden said.
“When they go away, people feel heartbroken; they feel crestfallen,” she said. “That’s why we’re on a mission to make sure when murals go away, they get replaced.”
There are no legal obligations for developers to preserve murals or keep them visible, Golden said.
As Philadelphia reckons with protests over police brutality and systemic racism, murals have taken on symbolic importance. The brunt of protesters’ anger in late May and June over the memorials of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who had a history of using brutal tactics against the city’s Black population, was directed at a statue in front of the Municipal Services Building, but protests also led to the demise in June of a long-controversial 1995 mural of Rizzo in the Italian Market.
“A mural or a statue like Rizzo, it was always controversial,” Martinez said. “But it’s those difficult conversations a community has to have in determining who they want to celebrate and who they want to memorialize on such a grand scale.”
Strawberry Mansion, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood abutting Fairmount Park, was Coltrane’s home as more Black people moved in. When Coltrane lived on 33rd Street from 1952 to 1958, he composed Giant Steps, a landmark jazz album. He appeared in Philadelphia’s jazz clubs and sometimes played on his front porch. Today, the community is overwhelmingly Black, a change reflected in its public art. A mural under construction at 33rd and Diamond Streets showing a raised fist reflects the protests inspired by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In Strawberry Mansion, Anderson said, anger over the loss of two Coltrane murals reflects anxieties about development.
“Gentrification does not just displace people,” she said, “it also erases Black presence.”
Logan Kramer’s company Design Pro Development LLC is constructing the building that will obstruct the Coltrane mural. Kramer initially gave community leaders no notification that his project would affect the mural, though within days of a community outcry, he committed to replacing it.
Likewise, developers have no obligation to present construction plans to the public if they are not seeking a zoning change, said Tonnetta Graham, executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., so projects often have no neighborhood input. Residential development is springing up in Strawberry Mansion, but Graham would prefer to see buildings with at least some square footage devoted to commercial space.
The community isn’t anti-development, she said, “but you have to approach it with a level of respect, just like you do with a Society Hill. You just can’t come in here and do anything you want.”
Today, in the zip code that includes Strawberry Mansion, more than 48% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data, twice the percentage of people living in poverty citywide. Median income is about $19,000 a year. The median home value is less than $200,000, the real estate site Zillow reported.
Kramer described himself as the community’s largest developer, with plans to develop about 200 housing units over the next three years.
“It’s definitely going to be the next big neighborhood,” said Kramer, who compared Strawberry Mansion’s potential to what he saw in Brewerytown when he began building there.
His company bought the vacant land adjacent to the Coltrane mural for $2,700 four years ago. Mural Arts officials said their research did not indicate the likelihood of development that would block the Coltrane mural when it was being planned.
Graham sees differences between Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown. Strawberry Mansion has more long-term homeowners than the neighboring community did, she said, and a more robust CDC.
“One of the things we did not appreciate about Logan Kramer was him talking about his vision for the neighborhood,” Graham said, “not keeping to the fact that the neighborhood already has its own vision.”
Kramer, who owns 40 properties in the neighborhood, said he wants to complement the existing neighborhood. He invests only in vacant land or vacant properties, he said. He lives in the neighborhood, and about half his company’s workers are Black.
About 95% of Design Pro’s projects are rentals, he said, which should have less of an impact on the tax burden for the area’s homeowners. He has no obligation to include affordable housing in his coming developments but said rents for his one-bedroom units — about $1,000 a month — should be within reach for people making about $35,000 a year.
“This is actually a developer doing right by a community,” Kramer said. “That’s the core value we run our business on.”
Kramer is willing to offer one of his buildings, including the one under construction, as a new location for a Coltrane mural. He would like to find a space that won’t itself be blocked or destroyed by development down the line.
“I am a jazz fan, I’m a mural fan, and I’m a Coltrane fan,” Kramer said.
Other developers have sought ways to replace murals lost to construction, Golden said. One mural on Lombard Street now blocked by construction is being preserved thanks to high-resolution photographs taken of it that will allow precise replication. A new location is being sought, Mural Arts staff said.
Golden has committed to asking Martinez to paint the next Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. The one being lost is one of his favorite pieces, he said, and he expects the newer one to closely resemble it.
To prevent future conflicts, Golden is pushing city legislators to create a comprehensive directory of the city’s public art.
“I would be very interested in having a registration here, so they could do research on the mural and could reach out and connect with that entity,” she said. “We could inform the community, we could inform the artists, then we could negotiate around a work of art so no one is blindsided.”