A Philadelphia holiday tradition lost in 2020 will be resurrected, thanks to a group of neighbors and artists determined to spread joy around Brewerytown during a dismal year. Like the dazzling displays at Macy’s Christmas Light Show or the Miracle on South 13th Street, this time of year would typically bring another classic custom: SEPTA’s Route 15 PCC II streetcars, traveling between West Philadelphia and Port Richmond, decked out for the holidays.
But, when Michael Mastroianni, 37 of Brewerytown, heard the historic vehicles would be taken off the line last January and replaced with buses for at least a year, he knew that would mean no “jolly trolley” running along Girard Avenue in 2020.
As time drew on, bringing with it a COVID-19 pandemic, a racial reckoning, and a polarizing presidential election, he and others got together to create a smaller replica of the evergreen-colored trolley “to bring some of that holiday joy back where people might be missing it,” he said.
Strung with multicolored lights and featuring a few recognizable faces in the painted portraits of passengers like John Coltrane, Meek Mill, Will Smith, and of course, Gritty, the plywood copycat is now hung up at the Girard Dream Garden at Girard Avenue and 31st Street, until early January.
“That’s one tradition that we lost completely independent of coronavirus, and before coronavirus,” Mastroianni said. “So, it was sort of novel to go back to an idea that I had to cheer people up before we really needed cheering up.”
And though the Route 15 line has no trolley to decorate, riders may still see other routes decorated by their operators as they typically do for the holidays, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.
The “jolly trolley” display was unveiled during a socially distanced “lighting ceremony” this past weekend. About 15 to 20 artists, friends, and neighbors lined the sidewalk, chatting through face masks while holiday music quietly played through a cell phone.
Cheer and applause trailed Mastroianni, who spearheaded the effort and runs the City Line Drawings art business, as he plugged in the lights shortly after the sun gave way to the night’s sky, illuminating the careful details on the faux “jolly trolley,” painted by the group dubbed the “Dream Garden Gang.” Next-door neighbor Bekki Dailey, 48, lent her home to supply the electricity.
Liliya Tchistiak, 28 of Rittenhouse, said working on the project was a good distraction during the pandemic. She contributed the paintings of the urban cowboy, John Coltrane, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as well as the trolley driver.
“It really just helped bring everybody together, especially during these times where you really don’t get to see your friends as often,” Tchistiak said. “Since this was all taking place outside, we could all come out and practice social distancing and still have an opportunity to get together and do something nice.”
Bob Maxion, 27, of Brewerytown, considered Philly Elmo and Meek Mill for his artistic contribution and ultimately chose the latter. He was eager to get involved with his group of friends, calling the iconic trolley a major perk to living in the neighborhood. “It’s kind of upsetting to see that it’s not running,” Maxion said. “Hopefully, that comes back.”
It will come back, Busch said. The fleet of 18 cars, built in the late 1940s and overhauled in 2002, were temporarily removed from service last year to undergo evaluation and maintenance, and expected to return in a year to 18 months following the completion of a PennDot bridge project.
But, their “big-time makeover,” which involves crews “tearing them apart … and figuring out what the issues are,” has taken a little longer than expected, he said. The streetcars are targeted for a return in 2022, Busch said.
“Pretty much anything on the vehicle that you can think of, we’re having to redo it,” he said. “It’s pretty much a top to bottom redo of the cars.” For now, the replicated jolly trolley will have to do.
“This one doesn’t make noise,” said Dailey, who lives next door to the garden. “So I love this one.”