Today in her Changing Skyline column, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron takes on the latest triumph of Jane Golden's Mural Arts Program: Haas & Hahn's brightly colored buildings on Germantown Avenue (above). Part of Mural Arts' pride in this project is the pedigree of the Dutch painting duo: Not only are they international, they're known for famously brightening Brazilian favelas with the same squares of Mondrian-like color. Having them then come to Philadelphia (because our slums are just as bad/good as Brazil's) was an honor.
Saffron concedes she's not a fan of murals, which Mural Arts' leader Jane Golden certainly knows by now. And even though this particular paint job did employ neighborhood participation, which Saffron acknowledges is important, she thinks it's borderline delusional to imagine the prettified walls will make a difference in terms of retail. Speaking of the celebration for the building paintings last Saturday, Saffron writes:
"There is no reason," one giddy participant told me, "that this street can't be the next SoHo." Ahem. A little reality, please.
While speakers like City Council President Darrell L. Clarke were exulting over the "changed street" from the comfort of a nearby community center, Mohammed Sisco, a Bangladeshi immigrant, sat huddled in his underheated store, hoping for a customer who might purchase one of his scented oils, special soaps, or even something from the dollar bin. It was the first Saturday of the busiest shopping month of the year, yet only a trickle of pedestrians wandered the sidewalks outside.
Saffron says retail corridors don't change due to colorful walls; they change as a result of either a committed developer (like Tony Goldman on 13th Street) or the dedicated efforts of a nonprofit (like the group that transformed East Passyunk Avenue). In other words, retail corridors need human beings invested in doing work to make change
Mural Arts has always had plenty of human beings invested in neighborhood welfare, and in this case, plenty of dollars: "The Commerce Department now says it will invest an additional $3.5 million in regular street cleaning and new sidewalks and lighting," Saffron writes. But she thinks it's not enough.
"Murals have been used as a cheap crowd-pleaser for years. Maybe it's time for city officials to acknowledge that it's just not possible to paint your way out of blight."
· Changing Skyline [Inquirer]
· Inspiring Film About Haas & Hahn and Germantown Ave. [CPHI]
· Urban Bright: Philly Gets a Paint Job [NYT]