Image by Caleb Rochester

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

What the Mural Machine Left Behind

Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.

-Adam Peditto, curator

As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.

The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.

Image by Caleb Rochester

These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.

Image by Caleb Rochester

Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.

One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.

Image by Caleb Rochester

The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.

Image by Caleb Rochester

When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.

I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.

Image by Caleb Rochester

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Take Your Shoes Off at the Door

Public Space: The Key to Defeating Segregation

Last week’s curator, Jane Golden, says, “Art ignites change.” When it comes to segregation can art conquer social exclusion and isolation?

Philadelphia is the fourth most segregated city in the nation. Living in Philadelphia this is an un-ignorable fact. We, as Philadelphians, create personal boundaries, restrictions for our living, working, and playing that keeps us from interacting with other groups of people. Whether class or race divides that group, segregation is a present part of Philadelphia. As an unfortunate adage to our city’s standing definitions, we are a city of neighborhoods, but you stay on your side of the neighborhood and I’ll stay on mine. But how do we collectively combat segregation? Beyond personal belief, organizational value, and political siding, how do we exercise integration?

Besides the Eagles and cheesesteaks, there are certain spaces that bridge racial tension and class divide. That which we dub “public” surpasses the proverbial cool kid stoop, and invites all to share the space. In Philadelphia most of our public spaces are neighborhood specific or geared towards tourists. We have our parks and recreation centers that serve a certain community, and monuments that draw outside visitors.

The recently renovated Dilworth Plaza is an excellent example of good public space in Philadelphia, but it is one of a kind. At the heart of Center City, Dilworth Plaza is a comfortable and useful space, and a space that attracts both residents and visitors alike. The plaza maintains its historic reputation, allowing itself to be a place of protest and demonstration, but it also hosts farmers markets and art exhibitions.

Public spaces could be the key to reducing segregation in Philadelphia. Public parks and plazas become spaces of debate and conversation. In his piece, The Sociology of Public Space, Stephane Tonnelat lays down the foundation for an argument that has been accepted both by urban planners and sociologists, stating, “The general opinion is that public spaces are an essential ingredient to the sustainability of cities for political, social, economic, public health and biodiversity reasons. However, the dominating trend observed by many is one of shrinkage rather than expansion of the public realm.” As public spaces become less available, segregation in urban spaces become more prevalent. Tonnelat adds, “according to global indicators of segregation (class, race and ethnicity, gender) seem to show a worldwide growing separateness of the different categories of populations. Today, for a number of planners public space thus appears as an important means to alleviate these ills while at the same time addressing emerging issues such as the imperative of sustainable development and social justice.”

Public spaces often fall victim to condominiums and shopping spaces, however we have been seeing a reestablishing of the public space in Philadelphia. Earlier this year a new design was announced for LOVE Park. The park has always had its architectural challenges. Inga Saffron, architect critic for the Inquirer, wrote in May, “There are many ways that the new design for LOVE Park could have gone wrong. The square at the gateway to the Parkway is an engineering nightmare, perched above a parking garage and a train tunnel. The $15 million budget is barely adequate.”

Saffron, like many Philadelphians, was happy with the news of a redesign that kept the integrity of the park’s vista views intact along with the iconic spaceship building. However, there was backlash from other communities, like Philadelphia’s skate scene. Despite the controversy, the new design brings aesthetic coherence to an otherwise awkward location, and mirrors the intentions of Dilworth Plaza. The park is meant to be a place that encourages spending quality time with friends and family, which the park does not do at the moment.

The area that houses Dilworth Plaza, LOVE Park, and Thomas Paine Plaza could be repurposed and perhaps become the first step in reprioritizing public space in Philadelphia. Currently the area is the most confused and clumsy survey of indecisive Percent for Art Program decisions, and metaphors that have gone terribly awry. Architectural wonders stand side by side next to what I can only assume someone’s whimsical rulings about awkward public art pieces. It’s a shame, but the area has all the potential. If the heart of Center City prioritized public space, it would be making a statement about integration, and hopefully the rest of the city would follow.



Amanda is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has been displayed at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, featured at festivals, and in events with Fait Du Vide Collective. Amanda has published with, the Philadelphia Daily News, Art Attack, and VICE Media. In her spare time she likes to drink and draw naked ladies.
O what a pretty view! Photo by Dawn McDougall.

Take Your Shoes Off at the Door

Your Feelings About Le Bok Fin Are Not an Act of Activism

For the most part, the conversation about Le Bok Fin has been exhausted. The 8,000 square-foot pop-up bar, which closed its doors to the public this past Sunday, has served as both a primary target and centerpiece in conversations about gentrification. Yet the overall commentary falls flat, providing a binary summary of the situation, occasionally sprinkling in a few fundamental facts about Philadelphia’s public school funding, inconsistent building appraisals, and overpriced booze.

Philly Mag’s Holly Otterbein summed up the discussion well, writing, “On one side of the debate are people who argue that the project is tone-deaf, that the school never should have closed, and that it should be repurposed with long-term residents — not craft beer-drinking hipsters — in mind. On the other side are those who say that the revitalization of a blighted building is something to be celebrated, and that the larger issues of poverty, affordable housing and education funding should be addressed by the public sector, not individual developers.”

One of the most jarring aspects of the debate is the sudden reverence we (collectively) have for a building that the majority of those sounding off have no actual connection to. Whether you have been to Le Bok Fin, protested going, or just forgot to make plans, you have an opinion. It’s those of us who generate the conversation, who use the power of discourse, and in our free time attend pop-ups in up-and-coming neighborhoods, who echo the loudest objection while seated pretty on a throne (granted, a much smaller throne) next to the developers. What’s different about Le Bok Fin? We can’t ignore the major problems of our city when we are literally sitting on them.

Philadelphia has over 40,000 vacant/abandoned properties. The Philadelphia School District faces a deficit of $80 million this year. Schools cannot maintain current facilities. Teachers are not being paid just wages. According to the center for literacy, “In Philadelphia, over half of the adult population—an estimated 550,000 individuals—are considered low illiterate.” Most alarming is our glaring poverty statistic, which is among the top ten highest in the nation with an overall poverty rate of 26.3 percent.

Le Bok Fin may have been executed in poor taste, but a similar criticism could have been applied to the inaugural Hidden City Festival in 2009. Hidden City—who has remained oddly silent during the debate—is known for bringing attention to abandon and lesser-known spaces in the city through discourse and events. Hidden City’s festivals have attracted thousands of visitors to heritage sites where local and national artists performed and created site-specific work. The early concept brought art and bodies into these “hidden” sites, but has since branched out to encourage long-lasting usage. After the first festival South Philly’s Shiloh Baptist Church was used as a practice space for local dance companies. The Drop Forge building at Disston Saw Works acquired a tenant. The difference between Le Bok Fin and Hidden City is stark, but a parallel remains: the two bring attention to properties that would have gone unnoticed otherwise.

Hidden City has explored more neighborhoods that live outside of the expanding gentrification bubble. “There hasn’t been much ‘gentrification pressure’ on most Philadelphia neighborhoods, which has left old buildings to age naturally,” Editorial and Research Director at Hidden City Nathaniel Popkin told last March. There are plenty of buildings that could use some love, but what affects us the most about this building is that it hits close to home. It is a part of a neighborhood that you could live comfortably in, it’s not too far from the places you already occupy, and most importantly it is a place you want to be at. Do you feel uncomfortable sitting on chairs that students once sat on, and chairs that student could theoretically still sit on? YES, but debating the ethical nature of a single standing pop-up is not an act of activism.

Image by Dawn McDougall

Amanda is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has been displayed at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, featured at festivals, and in events with Fait Du Vide Collective. Amanda has published with, the Philadelphia Daily News, Art Attack, and VICE Media. In her spare time she likes to drink and draw naked ladies.