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August 07, 2018

Developer destroys South Philly mural dedicated to 'children lost to violence'

He says engineering report deemed the wall unsafe, and vowed to make it up to community

Controversies Murals
Destroyed mural Photo Courtesy of/Kenyatta Johnson/Facebook

This mural near 20th Street and Tasker Avenue was painted decades ago to memorialize children lost to violence. This week, it was damaged by a developer who received an engineering report that the wall was crumbling.

Back in 1988, then-Mayor Wilson Goode Sr. returned to Philadelphia from a trip to Boston, where he saw neighborhood tributes to young victims of violence.

Suggesting his city try to replicate it, he took the idea to Tim Spencer, who created the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network that, over the years, morphed into the Mural Arts Program.

“The idea behind it was to give voices to families that lost children to violence,” recalls Jane Golden, the current executive director of Mural Arts who worked with Spencer at the time. “We decided the first one would be in the area of 20th and Tasker because there was a lot of violence in that area. It was a significant issue in this part of the city.”

To that end, a team was sent out to talk to mourning families to get clearance to include their loved one’s name on that “Stop The Violence” mural in Point Breeze, and two others in the same series.

“It was sad and poignant. We felt an incredible sense of loss,” Golden recalled on Tuesday. “At the same time, it was a privilege to do the work at Anti-Graffiti because we got to connect with so many people in a deeper way.”

This is what Golden shared with PhillyVoice moments after first seeing a photo of that same mural being destroyed in the course of development on the 1600 block of South 20th Street.

The photo was posted on Facebook by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who rued the fact that the community was not told ahead of time.

“This is totally unacceptable to say the very least,” he wrote. “(We didn’t) even (have) an opportunity to salvage the Mural!”

Suffice it to say, Johnson’s post drew quite a bit of response from a community upset to see its long-time memorial disappear seemingly on a whim.

Steve Brown, the developer on the project, said he feels bad about what happened, but that it was a necessary move.

"If residents insist on replacing the mural, I will certainly do that." – Steve Brown

“This whole thing is really unfortunate,” he told PhillyVoice on Tuesday afternoon. “We got a structural engineering report that stated the wall is unsafe, that pieces were falling down. We braced the wall with support beams, but pieces continued to fall. We were concerned for everyone’s safety.”

He said he regrets not reaching out to community organizations sooner, but they were “reacting to a safety situation” and acted before they spoke.

“I felt so bad for the people, who were very upset, but we’re going to fix the situation,” he said of a house that they purchased for a rehab that seemed a lot easier to accomplish before they started working. “The building was in very bad condition. We were hoping to save the mural, and took a lot of steps to do so. This was a plan to do something good that ended up going bad.”

Golden said this sort of thing isn’t an anomaly, estimating that three to five murals are lost annually because of development across the city. That the Mural Arts Program creates substantially more than that a year doesn’t take away the sense of loss when a work of art memorializing loss disappears, though.

040717_BarwinNFL Films/Twitter

Connor Barwin at Ralph Brooks Park

“Crestfallen,” said Golden to describe her reaction to the loss of this “iconic” mural, which she recalled community members urging her to protect when working in the area not too long ago with former Eagles Connor Barwin. “I get it. This city is on the move. Change is happening and Mural Arts doesn’t want to stand in the way of that. But this was something important.

“You wouldn’t tear down a house or a sculpture (without letting people know the plans). What is it about a work of public art on a way that doesn’t command this same kind of respect? At least give the artist and community a heads-up.”

Golden said Tuesday afternoon that she's yet to hear from Brown, but has heard from residents who are "very upset" about the situation. She was planning to head down to the site to take a look at what's left of the mural she helped paint.

For his part, Johnson lauded Brown "for stepping up and committing to preserve the mural in the future," but said the actions were indicative of something that has to change across Philadelphia.

"I hope in the future that developers confer with residents just to get ideas on how they can work together to preserve murals," he said. "That way, developers won't come across as insensitive if something goes wrong."

Brown said he understood reactions along those lines and vowed to make it right. He’s already reached out to Mural Arts for their input, as well as to officials with the new Ralph Brooks Park, with which Barwin was aligned.

“If we can memorialize it in a different way, I would be open to that. If residents insist on replacing the mural, I will certainly do that," he said. "I will do whatever the community organization prefers.”

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