This Is Where I Live

Where Diversity Still Lives

The mummers. Illustration by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com

Thora worked at Mural Arts in a number of capacities for many years, and has had a profound imprint on our evolution over the past decade. In addition to her work for Mural Arts, Thora serves as the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance and teaches at Drexel University, and previously worked as the Executive Director of the Fleisher Art Memorial. I’m so pleased to share this week’s space with Thora and to hear her stories of the Philadelphia cultural community.

-Jane Golden, Curator

South Philadelphians are, by and large, not shy about expressing themselves. A few virtuoso hucksters still hawk fruits and vegetables with intriguing but often unintelligible chants on Ninth Street. Glittering passages of mirror glass and broken ceramics by artist Isaiah Zagar insinuate themselves into walls and facades deep into the heart of Pennsport. Monumental portraits of Italian Americans—crooners, tenors, rockers, and one particularly massive former mayor—look down on local residents and visitors from upper stories on Ninth Street and along Broad Street (though several of them have disappeared into the party walls created by new residential construction). Chants of Buddhist monks float over Mifflin Square from the windows of the neighboring Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple and Khmer Buddhist Association, a repurposed synagogue. New Mexican immigrants from Puebla celebrate the traditions of their home in an annual April procession that honors their patron, San Mateo Ozolco, on the anniversary of the defeat of the French Army by a greatly outnumbered Mexican Army. And once a year legions of musicians and dancers in feathers and sequins migrate from their headquarters throughout the community to take over South Broad for New Year’s Day, returning to raucous celebrations on Second Street at the end of the parade. Newer additions to the landscape of South Philadelphia include community gardens and, thanks to the Mural Arts Program, suites of new murals, multi-lingual and multi-colored, have appeared in resettlement communities of Nepali, Bhutanese, and Karen immigrants. All in all, on a daily basis, South Philadelphians participate in changing and expanding notions of what counts as culture.

This is the South Philadelphia I know, the one where I have worked since 1972 and lived since 1977. I do not need to be convinced that a significant aspect of South Philadelphia’s vibrancy, and one of the reasons that I am still here is that its neighborhoods are woven together into a community that has embraced artists of all disciplines. Home to the likes of Mario Lanza, Eddie Fisher, Eddie Lang, and Chubbie Checker; South Philadelphia has also trained visual artists like Frank Gasparro, the late Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, and dozens of filmmakers, fashion designers and choreographers. It has provided affordable housing and workspace to hundreds of artists and embraced a wide range of art forms—high and popular, culinary and contemporary, traditional and cutting edge. Culture in South Philadelphia, it has always seemed to me, is a deep well of renewable resources.

In addition to the live cultural traditions that animate the streets of present-day South Philadelphia, the evidence of earlier residents—their institutions, values and skills—can be discerned in the adaptive re-use of religious buildings, schools, shops, stables, small factories and streetscapes. Along Washington Avenue, newer immigrant populations have taken over supermarkets, opened taquerias and dim sum restaurants, and shouldered their way into the Ninth Street shops and stalls.

While I have done formal and informal research on local immigrant history over the years, it was only when I was part of Mural Arts’ project, Journeys South, in 2010-11, that I saw the place I had lived for almost forty years through the eyes and hearts of the participating artists and their engaged informants: photographer RA Friedman, muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz and photographer Tony Rocco, poet Frank Sherlock and printmaker Erik Ruin, and Miro Dance Theatre (Amanda Miller and Tobin Rothlein).

Each of these artists who contributed to Journeys South focused on an element of immigrant history, retold through ephemeral, and often performative, works of art. The cross-cultural, intergenerational sharing of space and time through footprints on sidewalks marking journeys short, long and circuitous; honor boxes filled with broadside tales of “Neighbor Ballads” along hipster Passyunk Avenue; a mechanical zoetrope recording the history of Jewish immigrants at 7th and Wolf Streets; and large photo-collage banners that share visually the history of Ninth Street vendors in the (formerly Italian) market reinforced for me the regenerative character of South Philadelphia (east of Broad).

But it is annually that the Mummers Parade serves as a reminder of how this gathering, diminished as it is, connects so many aspects of living culture downtown, drawing together comedians, choreographers, serious amateur musicians and dancers, highly skilled artists and technicians, folk artists and, most of all, South Philadelphians who are both audience and participants in an ever changing communal celebration of the new year.

Illustration by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com

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