April 04, 2014 by Richard Furstein
Recently in her Philadelphia Inquirer column, Inga Saffron expressed her dismay around the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s latest target: the piers of the Girard Avenue Bridge in Fairmount Park. As the Inquirer’s designated architecture critic and a graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, I couldn’t begin to question Saffron’s qualifications as an expert on architecture and urban design. Her tastes, however, are clearly the product of her own disengagement with the lower classes of this great city.
Is it rude of me to single out the urban poor? After all, Saffron doesn’t mince her words when describing the people and the neighborhoods for which the Murals Arts Program is intended. It operates “mostly in the bleaker corners of the city,” “struggling neighborhoods” and “blighted” areas. I never realized that the mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo at 9th and Montrose streets made my neighborhood “blighted.” I just assumed it was a celebration of one of South Philly’s more distinguished residents.
Inga Saffron has never been a fan of the Mural Arts Program, and this column is not a shocking revelation of the critic’s views. What is shocking, though, is her casual association of murals with areas of ill-repute. Though she complains of the artistic caliber and intended image, the basis of her argument rests on her dichotomy of the city. While she doesn’t mind murals in neighborhoods “where a little paint isn’t the worst thing that could happen,” the Bridge piers are in her treasured Fairmount Park. She invokes images of a pure “Schuylkill greenway” under assault from urban incursion (perhaps she hasn’t noticed the four-lane roadway?), but her real message is clear: Fairmount Park is an area for affluent people, and the murals are a symbol of urban blight.
Let’s zoom out for a moment and try to understand how the iconic images that decorate our city are associated with poverty. The current Mural Arts Program was created as a part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, to redirect young people from defacing Philadelphia into celebrating its rich local histories. Since then, the program has evolved tremendously, working with the Philadelphia Art Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation and numerous private organizations to encourage both art and fledgling artists. The Mural Arts Program removes graffiti, plants trees and works with diverse groups from school children to prison inmates, assisting with job training and placement. It’s quite a Marxist pipedream of an organization, and while I’m sure it does not accomplish all of its lofty goals, it serves a critical community function.
Many critics, like Saffron, argue that cosmetic programs like Mural Arts are ignoring real socioeconomic issues, and are not what the people really want. Saffron pursued this point specifically, calling into question the democratic nature of the mural’s selection and approval process. While she acknowledged that the privately-funded mural did have to be approved by the relevant city authorities, she sounded unimpressed with the level of bureaucracy needed to approve new murals. Perhaps she would be happier if all Philadelphians had to publically vote on all art. More likely though, she would prefer a ban on any future Mural Arts projects.
In spite of Saffron’s objections, the murals serve an economic improvement role as well. In 2009, Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the City of Philadelphia commissioned a study to investigate city investments in commercial corridors. The study found that mural projects were among the top five investments a city could make to improve urban space. Practically speaking, painting murals in commercial areas (e.g., Germantown Avenue, Girard Avenue, Baltimore Avenue, etc.) resulted in increased property values and retail sales. While this fact should stand for itself, the Mural Arts Program insists that it is not an economic improvement initiative. It is a community-building project, with an economically beneficial side effect.
Saffron’s attack on the democratic nature of Mural Arts and the “narcissistic” subject matter of the murals reveals her own disconnect with the people who benefit from the program. While Saffron studied design in one of the U.S.’s premier institutions, many of Philadelphia’s residents can’t afford to feed their children fresh produce, let alone take them to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation or the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. Attempts to make these museums more accessible (like the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Pay-What-You-Wish Wednesday Nights) are rare, and these bastions of high culture remain restricted to people like Saffron.
For many children and young adults growing up in Philadelphia, positive reflections of their lives and homes are few and far between. Engaging them in the Mural Arts Program offers a chance to contribute to their community in a lasting and powerful way. It also showcases some of the city’s talented urban artists, who are unable to pursue classical artistic training. For the visitors of Philadelphia, these murals reflect a rich and transparent history of our city, from the venerable South Philly mayor to the rowers on the Schuylkill. Calling for “boundaries” on which neighborhoods can have murals is an insult to the dedication of the program and the artists who contribute to it.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.