For years, SEPTA’s South Broad Street Concourse was where Thomas Barrios, 47, slept. Now, it’s his workplace.
Involved in Mural Arts Philadelphia’s “Color Me Back” project, a program paying participants to turn about 200 columns in the concourse into bold, colorful displays, Barrios said that he enjoys showing his family the photos of art he’s helping to create in Center City’s underbelly.
The latest project, announced Tuesday by Mural Arts Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, aims to give those “experiencing economic insecurity an opportunity to earn wages," according to Mural Arts.
“I feel extremely good knowing that I can beautify some place that I used to live at,” said Barrios, who now lives in transitional housing in West Philadelphia. “It gives me motivation to come down here every morning, to come down here, feel like I’m doing something positive.”
Color Me Back employs 10 participants for four, four-hour days each week to assist in the endeavor. As part of the “same-day work and pay program," participants earn $50 a day, and also learn about support services available as part of the “low-barrier work opportunity.”
SEPTA is also partnered on the program that’s funded through grants from the Barra Foundation, Sheller Family Foundation, and others.
“Our obligation to citizens of Philadelphia is that every program we run, we look at it in a way that’s generative,” said Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, during a news conference Tuesday. “That everything should lead to something else, to something else, like a flower that unfolds.”
If the idea sounds familiar, it should. The city launched Color Me Back last year where participants helped design and paint a mural in SEPTA’s Suburban Station. The work happening in the concourse, which began in August, is the second phase of the program that’s now given participants more than $140,000 in earnings since it began, according to Mural Arts.
The bold geometric splashes of color decorating the columns sharply contrast against the concourse’s muted tones, sprawling concrete, and fluorescent lighting. Philadelphia artist Lauren Cat West is the design’s brainchild and collaborated with its participants in weekly workshops to tweak the display stretching below City Hall through Walnut Street.
“We decided to kind of come up with a general idea that represents not just the participants but would also be able to reflect Philadelphians,” West said.
The design, which pays homage to details already found in SEPTA stations, rowhouses, folk art, and more, is in its preliminary stages and expected to be completed by November.
For SEPTA, it was a no-brainer to transform the “forest of bland columns,” said Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager of customer experience and advocacy.
“I’ve always looked at this space, thinking, ‘My God,’" he said. “This is such a great, great public place and it’s undiscovered. Nobody knows it’s here. It’s underused. Let’s do something here.”
Work for the program began this past winter but was put on pause as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in the region. It then had to make some logistical adjustments, including to an in-person lottery system at LOVE Park that picked 20 participants. The process drew dozens each morning.
As they relaunched the project in the concourse, organizers drew from contact information they collected from its first phase, said Emily Crane, program coordinator for Color Me Back at Mural Arts.
The spaced-out columns were already perfectly socially distanced canvases.
“I think that adds to them feeling a sense of ownership,” Crane said. “Like, I completed all of that. I did all of that by myself.”