We have only to take a ride to Philadelphia to see how an anti-graffiti program blossomed into a multi-million dollar mural arts program funded by a huge roster of donors and giving grace and beauty to a city that’s bigger and tougher than Bridgeport will ever be.
I always joke that growing up outside Philadelphia prepared me for life in Bridgeport. If there were ever two hard-luck cities that show so much promise and potential, but never seem to reach it, it’s these two cities. Philly’s 10 times larger than Bridgeport, is a major television and sports market and has a tourism board so progressive that it designated its antiques district as the “gayborhood.”
In the 1970s, the typical class trip in my school was the Philadelphia Zoo and my parents were always good about getting me to the art museum (before and after “Rocky”) and to the Liberty Bell, the Mummers Museum and Betsy Ross’ house. Then in college, I often went to South Street to hang out or to one of several art house cinemas for a vintage movie revival or an indie film. The first time something I wrote was published was during my internship at McAdams and Ong Advertising on Broad and Locust.
But I also remember corrupt and inept politicians, bungled civic projects and a crime rate that surpasses New York’s, even today. The job situation forced me to Connecticut 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
In 1984, enough people saw the graffiti epidemic as an opportunity to engage young people, and clean up the streets besides. An anti-graffiti program eventually changed its name to something positive. Today it’s the Mural Arts Program, which between 2008 and 2009 employed 120 artists, created 82 murals and cleaned (or “reclaimed”) 400 vacant lots. Over $2 million was paid to muralists and teachers.
Each mural project creates conversation and collaboration between young artists and members of the community. Every step of the way, concepts and designs are publicly debated. In the end, an empty wall that could have been a grim, even degrading, sight is transformed into something uplifting. Energy is funneled into positive projects. This program does good on so many levels.
On June 16, a self-guided tour of the “mural mile” will be available on a podcast here. Two miles, 17 murals, all in Center City (or to us, “downtown”), and the stories behind them. There are also guided tours by trolley.
The program is one of Philadelphia’s largest employers of artists, employing over 300 artists a year and 36 former graffiti artists are staff members on permanent payroll. Over 300 children a year are served by this program. Their average mural is about the height of three-story row house and 35 feet wide, and costs $20,000
And if you think this is just another big-government program, take a look at the web pages I’ve been linking to. Scroll down. These are being funded privately. A foundation works fulltime to raise funds. It broke away from the parks and recs department years ago and is a not-for-profit corporation.
Isn’t this an idea we can bring home?