You may know of the circular Praça Cantão, the plaza that serves as an entrance to the Favela Santa Marta. Rio de Janeiro is peppered with upwards of 1,000 favelas — Brazilian slums — clinging to the hills that run along the city. The Favela Santa Marta, nestled in the southern zone, is set on one of the steepest of these hills: The terrain is practically mountainous, and from far away it looks as if its buildings and shacks have been haphazardly stacked on top of each other.
Even many people not familiar with Brazil may have heard of Favela Santa Marta because of the large-scale art projects of Dutch muralists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (aka Haas&Hahn). In 2006, after filming a documentary on favela hip-hop there, they moved to Rio, hired local youths as a paint crew, set up scaffolds and began painting massive murals.
In 2010, Haas&Hahn finished their largest project in Favela Santa Marta. The results look as if a giant with a school-bus-sized paintbrush and a fondness for rainbows went to town on an entire block — bright-hued diagonal rays stretch across 34 multistory houses and 75,000 square feet. Images of the Praça Cantão plaza went viral, appearing in the New York Times, Vogue Brazil and on countless design Tumblrs. Subsequently, Philly’s Mural Arts Program got in touch to see whether the pair were interested in seeing how their multi-building, bright-colored project translated to urban, post-industrial America, and in 2011 Haas&Hahn moved to North Philly, to begin an even larger project they called Philly Painting. Their plan: to completely paint three unbroken blocks of buildings along an odd, north-south kink in the usually diagonal Germantown Avenue.
As of now, many façades have already been painted in a patchwork of rectangles. The shapes are simple, to fit onto a variety of structures, and easy to execute for a somewhat green paint crew partially drawn from the neighborhood; in addition, the colors of each building have been chosen by its owner. The hope is that they’ll eventually merge to form a continuous whole covering all of Germantown Avenue through the cross-streets of Alder, Huntingdon, Lehigh, Silver, Somerset and Cambria, down several side streets and perhaps even spilling over onto the pavement, crosswalks and light posts. You can anticipate the finished product looking like a bright tapestry under a magnifying glass. But the project is far from complete. And there are many reasons why.
Germantown Avenue is one of the oldest streets in Philly, with roots dating back to the late 1600s. Traveling the full length of the Avenue today is practically a primer in the city’s various economic castes: starting in recently gentrified Northern Liberties, the Avenue runs north and west through the amorphous area still known as the Badlands, then goes through progressively more and more affluent and suburban settings: Germantown, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill. Deputy Mayor of Commerce Alan Greenberger — head of the Commerce Department, a partner in the Philly Painting project — calls this journey a story of Philadelphia: “You just see it all.”
The little segment Haas&Hahn are painting is roughly the point where the Avenue begins its slow but steady gradation from blight to affluence. The area is about two-thirds African-American, and in the section two blocks east and west of the corridor, the median annual household income is below $15,000. Older residents are quick to reminisce about the Avenue of the 1970s: fresh food markets; novelty stores; happening, high-end clothing retailers. Since the neighborhood began to decline in the ’80s, these have been replaced by a creep of dollar stores, corner stores and oil stores; today, the area lacks a supermarket, bank and hardware store.
Along with Mural Arts, which pays the salaries of Koolhaas and Urhahn, Philly Painting gets funds from Philadelphia’s Commerce Department as part of a larger $3 million plan to reinvigorate Germantown Avenue that also includes street design, tree planting and a grant program for storefront improvements. But that money comes with the baggage of being tied to a city plan that’s specifically looking to spur economic results, rather than the less tangible goals of the favela project. And while there’s a palpable yearning for a neighborhood renaissance, some residents of the corridor expressed worries about potential gentrification.
This idea literally makes City Council President Darrell Clarke laugh. “Gentrification — no,” he says of the corridor, which partially lies in his 5th District. “It’s a long way from being even remotely close to being gentrified.”
Experts back up this dismissal. Margaret Sowell of Real Estate Strategies, Inc., conducted a market analysis of the half-mile radius surrounding the corridor, examining consumer habits and purchasing power. She recommended a produce market and a children’s dentist, but her research suggests that luring back the sort of specialty stores the old heads remember would be difficult, if not impossible.
Given, perhaps, the mural project’s somewhat amorphous reason for existence, reactions along the Avenue to the rectangles’ slow advance are mostly aesthetic, and mixed. “It’s like an outdoor coffee table — you walk outside and you gotta talk about it,” says local historian turned Mural Arts tour guide Keenan Jones. “It’s a good design,” says one passerby, adding that he’s happy that people from the neighborhood have been hired for the paint crew. “I’m not too crazy about them colors,” says another, shaking his head. “Rainbows across every store? Nah.”
Philadelphia and Rio have proved to be very different canvases. In the early years of the favela project, Haas&Hahn lived and worked in some prime battlegrounds of the drug war at a time when the favelas were controlled by the cartels rather than the Brazilian government. It was not a safe place. “We were shot at …; we were kind of shell-shocked,” says Urhahn. Instead of city officials, he and Koolhaas had to obtain permission for their project from notorious drug lord Fabiano Atanasio da Silva, aka FB. Some facts about FB: According to local news, between escaping from prison in 2002 and being recaptured earlier this year, he “oversaw the invasion by force of the Morro dos Macacos favela, an operation during which a police helicopter was shot down,” and he “led a wave of violent attacks in Rio which led to the military occupation of several favelas.” Getting FB’s approval involved both a lot of guys with machine guns — standard for interactions of this kind — and having to get an audience with him via tributes of beer.
Who’s harder to work with — FB or the government bureaucracy of Philadelphia? “The city of Philadelphia,” Urhahn says, without hesitation. “Quote me on that anytime.”
While the threat of being caught in the crossfire of a police-cartel shoot-out is no longer imminent, working for an American city means playing by the city’s rules, which involve exponentially greater amounts of red tape.
One particular catch-22 that drives Urhahn up a wall involves the Commerce Department, which has been exempting potential architectural gems from the project, thereby leaving gaps in the mural. Mural Arts and Commerce still seem to be at odds over a couple of these exemptions, though it’s a bit unclear. What is clear is Urhahn’s frustration over the delays it causes. “The paint is there, the walls are there, we’re good to go,” he says, “but, no, we can’t start just yet because of this rule and that problem and this legislation and that question.”
It’s particularly infuriating because Commerce does not actually have the mandate, obligation or, most importantly, any funding to actually do anything about the buildings they deem architecturally valuable. “I find it frustrating to be discussing the monumental state of a building, realizing that the only reason [it] is getting any attention is because it’s about to be painted,” says Urhahn. The buildings will likely just continue to sit there, as they have for decades, with the city’s kudos but none of its dollars.
Philadelphia also requires a whole lot more paperwork. The exchange of a handshake and a few six packs is no longer enough to start painting, as it was in Brazil, nor is the promise of a new paint job a significant selling point for building owners. Written, official permission must be secured from each building’s proprietor — and while a good deal of the businesses in these buildings are locally run, some of the landlords don’t even live in Philadelphia.
Mural Arts senior project manager Shari Hersh is leading the approval efforts. She hits the pavement with contracts in hand, sleuths to track down far-off proprietors and sends out waves of c ertified letters to the owners she can’t meet directly. There are 84 properties on Germantown Avenue between Alder and Silver streets, the zone she’s concentrating on first; to date, she says, the project has gotten approval to paint 67 of them, a bit more than three quarters. In the second portion, between Silver and Cambria streets, they’ve gotten approval for less than a quarter of the 57 properties. Since the idea of the project is all about continuity for the greatest visual impact, they’re shooting for 100 percent in both.
But even if every proprietor were to say yes tomorrow, there would still be obstacles.