[ activism ]
Walk down 39th Street in West Philly. Go past Spring Garden, farther and farther from the neighborhood where Drexel students live, until you get to where vacant lots are so overgrown they look like young forests, where shells of former homes aren’t even shells anymore, but exoskeletons.
Now, turn to the 3800 block of Melon Street. Suddenly, almost every home is painted in tropical pinks, blues and yellows, like the favela houses in Rio de Janeiro. They look out of place — in a good way. Under the summer sun, the properties sparkle.
Weirdly enough, this is not a new development project, but a Mural Arts Program piece known as "A Place to Call Home" — and Mural Arts Program executive director Jane Golden says there’s a lot more where it came from.
Last September, local muralists Damon Reaves, Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky began toying with the theme of homelessness among young people — a predicament with which they’re intimately familiar. The city's Mural Arts Program heads Mural Corps, a youth-development initiative that gets teenagers and young adults working on public art. Many of the participants, the artists learned, are homeless or have been so in the past.
That this tragedy was right under their noses was startling: "The youth are truly the invisible part of the homeless population," says Golden.
According to a UPenn study, more than 3,500 Philadelphia children were homeless in 2009. Golden estimates that one-third to one-half of the 1,500 young people Mural Arts serves have been without a home at some point.
The three artists interviewed these young people about living under bridges and in shelters, about being evicted with their families as well as by their families, and about still trying to remain kids all the while. These specific stories led Martinez down an abstract road: With the help of Mural Corps participants, he painted more than 30 façades on Melon Street in those popping hues.
"A mural depicting homelessness wouldn’t be very interesting," says Martinez. "This is more conceptual. It's about civic engagement; it's on the border between renovation and art."
The kaleidoscopic homes also work as magnets that draw you inside 3828 Melon St. Here, artists Reaves, Martinez and Walinsky transformed a former drug house into a temporary gallery.
Recordings of the artists' interviews with homeless children emanate from the walls: "When people come into this house, it's inescapable. They have to hear about the issue," explains Golden.
In the dining room, Martinez constructed a table, cabinet and chairs entirely out of paper — showing, perhaps too obviously, how fragile homes can be. Dozens of tragic quotes from the Mural Corps children are typed onto the makeshift furniture. "I don't want my son to be a Latin King. I don’t even like the fact that I am one," says one. "People don't care about other people," says another.
Wander into what you might call the gallery’s living room, and Reaves' animated film is playing, revealing a dollhouse-perfect home and silhouettes of people doing mundane chores. A young homeless boy explains why he likes Batman, while hinting at his own plight: "He just keeps to the shadows," he says.
Upstairs, you’ll find Reaves' projected animation of another young man’s homelessness, with an image of the Divine Lorraine repeatedly flashing on the wall. The stunning, empty building serves as the "perfect symbol" of the city's problems with blight, says Reaves.
Outside the gallery, along 39th Street, Walinsky created small-scale murals and wheat-pasted a few abandoned properties. The works, which depict strewn-about homewares, are nearly indistinguishable from other street art on the block.
This couldn't be more different than the murals of knitting grannies that Golden and co. are known for. Over the past year, the Mural Arts Program has strayed from its traditional formula, unveiling "A Place to Call Home," as well as "How Philly Moves" and canopies in the Italian Market depicting immigrants. Golden says a period of reflection and 'self-criticism" has led Mural Arts here — and it's not turning back.
"I'm not interested anymore in just doing a mural,” she states firmly.
Golden has slew of other non-mural projects in the works: One will involve veterans; another will examine suicide; another is going to explore the lives of Haitian refugees in Germantown.
But already, "A Place to Call Home" proves that Mural Arts had its identity crisis not a moment too soon.
Gallery open June 17, 18, 24 and 25, various times, free, 3828 Melon St., 215-685-0750, muralarts.org.