The Philadelphia murals often decorate the sides of party walls of rowhomes where one house was torn down and its neighbor remains; not only do the absence of windows in party walls make them the ideal canvas, but they otherwise serve as a drab reminder that a home used to be there. Neighborhoods with many exposed party walls offer the most fertile ground for murals; neighborhoods with fertile ground for murals have typically endured significant demolition (and no replacement housing); neighborhoods with many demolished homes are typically among the poorest and most distressed. Anyone can complete this loose syllogism: murals are overwhelmingly in poor neighborhoods. By no means is this always the case in Philly; some brick walls in fashionable
The concealment function of murals manifests the core of the problem here: mural artists have diverted the attention from what is missing, but the vacant lot remains where a house once stood. If these distressed neighborhoods ever experience a renaissance, will community members be willing to sacrifice their murals to put up a new house there? Perhaps I protest too much, but these immobile works of public art depend on that vacancy, and it is far easier to estimate the economic impact of a new home breaking ground than it is to gauge the regenerative effect of a large painting presiding over a city block. (One visible, recurring positive impact of murals is that it seems to deter graffiti significantly.) My conversations with Jane Golden, Executive Director of the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia, revealed that she has come to terms with the fact that a new home in that vacant lot will nearly always supersede preservation of a mural; she confessed that she has had to sacrifice a few murals over the years, due either to new construction along the party wall or, unfortunately, the demolition of the dilapidated home upon which the mural was painted. Despite these setbacks, the Mural Program continues unabated in
It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance to realize that the brains behind this mural commission approached the project with skill and care; whatever one thinks of the aesthetic qualities of the mural itself, the result is hardly amateurish. The icon in the lower right corner (better visible in later photos) indicates that this project derives from a 2007 partnership between the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Christel House Academy, a local charter school, in which students teamed with artist Will Wilson in the implementation of his design. A link to a brief video at the Eiteljorg website demonstrates the process and implies that the principal goals were beautification and cultivating artistic stewardship among the students, many of whom come from this working class neighborhood.
The goals are laudable and certainly embellish what was previously little more than a wall of stacked cement blocks, belonging to a structure that apparently houses boats, as this photo below suggests:
As is the case with the wonderful array of murals in
It’s a corner lot—prime real estate in other parts of the city. While these later two photos don’t quite offer a sense of the scale, the first photo reveals it’s actually a relatively large lot, probably around an acre in size. Nothing in the Sacred Heart neighborhood right now would qualify as prime real estate, but what if that were to change? Telltale evidence in the vicinity suggests that could be the case: Sacred Heart rests just south of a major I-70 underpass; immediately to its north of the interstate, on Meridian Street, is a strip of restored older buildings with retail targeting a much higher income demographic, including a brand-new restaurant by the name of Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, which apparently is a revival of an old Indianapolis establishment popular in the 1920s.
In the distance (indicated by my red circle) is the featured mural, within eyesight from the al fresco dining.
Close by are two certifiable restaurant institutions,
Thus, within just four blocks from the Meridian-Morris intersection with the mural are three successful restaurants. This may seem unremarkable, but these restaurants have succeeded in a somewhat non-descript, commercial/industrial area through sheer market demand. (Photos of this segment of
How do these pertain to that mural?
Should this neighborhood experience the rejuvenation for which there are several indicators, such a property would likely be among the first sacrificed for development. The corner parcel itself benefits from a steady flow of southbound commuters, as well as a relatively brief walk to downtown. Its desirability is likely only to increase, encouraging a developer to build, and, in all likelihood, permanently conceal this lovingly produced mural. Developers could also easily purchase the barebones structure that the mural rests upon for a song, demolishing it and combining two parcels on which to build a larger structure. As discussed in my previous blog posts on Philadelphia’s murals, the presence of a mural on an increasingly lucrative vacant lot rarely if ever precludes development—it is not in the city’s best interest to inhibit a parcel from re-entering commerce, nor is it typically desirable among neighborhood advocates when a new development could improve residential or retail opportunities while providing jobs for locals during the construction process. Thus, if someone buys that corner lot and wants to build, neither the City nor the CDC are going to stop them. I suspect that the likelihood is strong that development could, in the relatively near future, result in this mural’s permanent concealment or destruction.
Should that time arrive, perhaps the mural will have served its beautification purpose. It intended to hide ugliness and economic stagnancy, and any development injects newness and private investment to what otherwise remained a litter strewn, largely neglected lot. But such an action could just as easily shatter the emotional connections forged by the creators of this mural. Perhaps “Mihtohseenionki” will not meet its demise for many years in the future, when the children are fully grown, but it could squander the opportunity for a teachable moment regarding neighborhood investment: the goal is to engage the children in the sort of collective stewards that fosters community improvement, but the result ushers in the most negative aspect of gentrification through the callousness of private development—Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Of course a struggling neighborhood like Sacred Heart needs the development, but any protests among neighbors because it will sacrifice a great mural embody more than just token obstructionist nimbyism—the Eiteljorg/Christel House project has taken a nearly valueless building and instilled value on a mere slice that would be almost impossible to preserve and relocate on its own. The neighbors resign themselves into letting the artwork go, in the name of revitalization that is supposed to offer nothing but benefit.
Is the solution so simple as to choose a better location for a mural the next time? Perhaps it is. The ugliest places may be the easiest to improve because they’re starting from such a dismal state of neglect, but maybe they should have searched for something less ugly and simply mundane. Indianapolis doesn’t have the rowhouses that foster giant blank party walls like you might see in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood, but a blank wall that directly fronts a corner (instead of a vacant lot) at least stands a better chance of survival. Several blocks away from the Morris-Meridian intersection, a similar artist/student collaborative resulted in the painting of several concrete retaining walls along a section of Madison Avenue that operates along a depressed highway.
Chances of these structures being demolished are slim—they’re far too utilitarian and serve a vital infrastructural purpose. The beautification and community building worked along these retaining walls, thousands of people zoom by them each day in their cars, and no amount of gentrification in the surrounding area could undermine them. Murals deter graffiti, fill aesthetic voids, encourage folk-art participation, and maybe even improve home values. But they are not so sacrosanct that the dedication of a mural should equate to the waving of a magic wand at a certain location. Public art of any medium can claim far too many positive externalities to deserve such a cavalier approach to site selection.