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Artists Make Over Blighted Philly Storefronts

(A giant wallboard shows the upcoming activities of the Mural Arts Program around Philadelphia's neighborhoods.  Credit: John McDevitt)

(A giant wallboard shows the upcoming activities of the Mural Arts Program around Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Credit: John McDevitt)

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Sharon Lee remembers when her north Philadelphia clothing store sat on a “golden” street — so many pedestrians hustling and bustling along the sidewalk that shoppers couldn’t help but get jostled.

Though her store still sits on that same stretch of Germantown Avenue, the now-blighted business district is struggling to survive amid high poverty rates and crime.

But a Dutch art team known as Haas & Hahn has stepped in to help. Working with community members, the duo is creating a pair of block-long murals along the corridor by enveloping dozens of rowhouses in bold patterns.

From street-level storefronts to largely vacant upper floors, the swaths of bright color enliven the buildings, and in some cases mask graffiti, deteriorating brick facades and boarded-up windows.

“It brings life to the avenue,” said Reginald Hale, who works at a barber shop on the block. “It’s like a resurrection.”

The ambitious Philly Painting project, led by Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, is sponsored by the city’s Mural Arts Program. It’s part of a $3.5 million makeover that city officials planned for the once-thriving commercial strip.

Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said she knew she wanted Haas & Hahn after seeing similar work they did in the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro. Their Philadelphia project is now the largest and longest yet for Golden’s agency, which has already put 3,600 murals on city walls and is committed to social transformation through art.

Koolhaas and Urhahn have been living in the neighborhood for the past year, getting permission from building owners, working with merchants, designing color palettes, and hiring and training local residents to paint their vision into reality.

“The journey to create the art is as important as the object itself, and what happens afterward is of equal value,” said Golden.

The southern end of the corridor includes a dollar store, wig and clothing shops, electronics stores, a small diner and a convenience store. Koolhaas described the existing retail signage as “a cacophony,” and said his job was to create individual patterns for each store that hang together for an overall cohesive design.

“It’s like a tapestry of colored threads connecting the shops to each other,” Koolhaas said.

The project has also included repairing crumbling cornices and fishing birds’ nests out of abandoned upper floors. Felix St. Fort, lead assistant on the painting crew, said initial reactions from passers-by have ranged from “We love what you’re doing!” to the more critical “Who picked those colors?”

“It grows on people,” St. Fort said. “It’s kind of hard to assess something that’s not finished.”

Tawanda Moye, who used to live in the neighborhood and still visits family there, said she was skeptical after seeing the transformation of the first building.

“It ended up looking nice,” Moye said. “I really like it.”

The three-story building housing shopkeeper Sharon Lee’s Avenue Fashions sports columns of red paint accented with boxes of various colors, all crowned with a stripe of blue.

“It looks nice, but I don’t think it’s going to bring the customers to us, because people have no money.” Lee said. “The (revitalization) process is going to take a long time.”

Golden said she hopes to continue the project going north but is unsure about funding. For now, the mural program plans to offer tours of the site next month and host an official dedication in December. A similar but smaller-scale project is planned for a block downtown, she said.

City commerce officials are optimistic. The murals, combined with $3 million in streetscape improvements planned for next year, should help attract shoppers, boost commercial real estate values and produce more revenue for the city, said Ahada Stanford, senior manager for neighborhood economic development.

“It is clear to me that art can be a catalyst for development,” Stanford said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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