On Sunday, May 21 on a near-perfect spring afternoon, the city of Philadelphia closed Spring Garden Bridge over the Schuylkill River to dedicate a new mural that spans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the entrance of the Mantua neighborhood in West Philadelphia.
The long and colorful mural is the third in Spring Garden Bridge’s history, serving as an homage to the West Philly neighborhood and Mexican artwork. Its dedication on Sunday was a special moment for Mantua, which sits at the edge of the bridge and has experienced reinvestment and steady growth in recent years.
But for Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts, the mural’s dedication marked a bittersweet moment in her long history as the city’s ultimate cheerleader for public art and social good.
After all, the very first mural that graced Spring Garden Bridge was painted by Golden herself in 1984. Little did she know that it’d the seed that would eventually launch the city’s wildly successful Mural Arts program.
As Golden tells it, she learned firsthand in the mid-1980s that then-Mayor Wilson Goode doesn’t break his promises.
Golden had started working “in a very part-time way” with Tim Spencer and the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, a program established by Goode as a way to combat the spread of graffiti in Philly.
“Tim Spencer drove me over the bridge and said, ‘The mayor is really concerned about this site because it’s a gateway that connects Mantua and the museum, and it’s in terrible shape,” Golden recalls.
The graffiti-covered bridge wasn’t exactly the most welcoming entrance to the West Philly neighborhood, which at the time was experiencing economic disinvestment and a surge in gang- and drug-related warfare.
“Goode said, ‘Well, if Jane Golden can work with kids in Mantua and make the mural in three weeks, I’ll give her a full-time job.”
Golden and her crew of students and kids from West Philly quickly got to work, rushing back and forth from the bridge to the Utretcht Art Supplies store, filling her city-loaned undercover cop car with cheap house paint and brushes. Golden recalls, “I’d get stopped and asked if I was the police and I’d say, ‘No I’m an artist.’ I ended up keeping books of murals in the car thinking that this would validate that I was an artist whenever I got stopped by police.”
To this day, Golden remembers the paint colors used for the mural, which was designed as an homage to the city: “We’d buy little tubes of acrylic and squeeze red into, I don’t know, Brazil brown hoping for something like crisp blue.”
With Goode’s deadline quickly approaching, Golden’s team started working around the clock, logging nights and weekends. Cars honked in encouragement, neighbors dropped off sandwiches, and when the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the mural, Golden called her parents and exclaimed, “We’re in the news!”
After three weeks, what emerged along Spring Garden Bridge was a mural that was a tribute to the city in the eyes of children and teenagers. It featured a hodgepodge of homages to the neighborhood, from Mantua rowhouses to beloved block captains to break dancers to a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I don’t think it was a great mural. But it was a lively mural,” Golden admits. “It was an homage to their lives.”
With the mural’s debut, Mayor Goode had a promise to keep. He made Golden a full-time employee the next year. “I got paid an annual salary of $12,500,” says Golden, “and I could not have been happier.”
But house paint can only last so long, and after a few years of touch-ups, Golden’s mural was eventually replaced by another one in 2002. Artist Shira Walinsky’s artwork highlighted the faces of Mantua and Powelton. “To say that people loved this mural was sort of an understatement,” says Golden.
So when construction crews started taking down Walinsky’s painted panels for bridge repairs in 2014, “people were distraught.” And soon, without its mural, the newly-repaired bridge became covered in graffiti once again.
That’s when talks began among Mural Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Mantua residents to bring a mural back to the bridge. Together, they came up with the idea to create something that would serve as a connection between the museum and Mantua, which had just been named a Promise Zone by the Obama administration.
Betsy Casañas was picked from a small selection of artists to design the new mural, and was tasked to come up with a design that would highlight Mexican art and culture, as part of the museum’s recent exhibition Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism and the Mantua’s love of tulips. The flower is planted throughout the neighborhood, symbolizing Mantua’s regeneration and hope.
But to paint a 6,000-square-foot mural with 2,000 square feet of tulips, Casañas would need a lot of extra hands. Like when Golden amassed her team of helpers for the original mural, dozens of students from Drexel University, Moore College of Art & Design, and Mantua neighbors came out to help. Says Golden, “It really became this collective activity of painting tulips, which makes the mural like a quilt. Eventually the pieces come together to create something beautiful.”
Today, what started out as one “not great, but lively” mural on Spring Garden Street Bridge has blossomed into the largest public art program in the country, with more than 3,600 murals under its belt. The Mural Arts itself has evolved into an art-meets-social justice organization, growing from simply fighting graffiti with public art to establishing programs with immigrant communities, ex-convicts, hospitals, schools, and prisons.
For Golden, whose original plan was to paint the mural and then head off to law school, the social justice aspect has always been a part of the Mural Arts, since the very moment she took that drive over the bridge with her then-boss Tim Spencer. “The Mural Arts is about public art, and in some ways it’s really about equity and justice and access and opportunity,” she says. “I believe through all my heart that that drive started to stir in the late eighties.”
The hope with Casañas’ mural is that it will serve as a colorful and welcoming gateway to and from Mantua for years to come. Golden remarks, “It’s a mural that will resonate universally, because it’s really beautiful, and most important it will resonate to people in Mantua in a way that is really about hope and transformation.”
Mantua today has a population of just under 6,000 people, with an actively engaged community. It’s come a long way since the 1980s and remains on the cusp of change, with Drexel University slowly but surely expanding its campus in and around the West Philly neighborhood.
But the Mural Arts founder acknowledges that as beloved as neighborhood murals usually become, they’re not always permanent. She of all people knows that.
“I know murals aren’t here forever, and I never want to stand in the way of economic development,” she says. “But I also know how important murals are to people in this city.”
As one last anecdote, she tells a story about a woman from Mantua that she met years ago, when the Spring Garden Street Bridge still featured Walinsky’s mural of Mantua and Powelton residents. The resident told Golden, “That mural can’t go away, because I know when I see it, I’m almost home.”