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May 27, 2024

Renovated rec and senior center in North Philly prepares to reopen with 5,000-square-foot mural

The colorful piece was created by three Philadelphia artists with input from the neighborhood's Latino community.

Arts & Culture Murals
Rec center mural Provided image/Rebuild PHL

Artists from Amber Art and Design and members of the Fairhill community painted the mural together after years of collaborative design and discussion.

When the Fairhill community center at Fifth Street and Allegheny Avenue reopens, it'll have new windows, flooring and a dance studio — along with a vibrant mural spanning one side.

The 5.4-acre property, comprised of the Rivera Recreation Center and Mann Older Adult Center, has been under construction since 2021. The city's Rebuild program has spent the past three years (and $16 million) fixing up the two buildings in what will be the initiative's largest project to date. While the site was set to relaunch last week with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, that was postponed due to "unforeseen construction delays," a new date is expected soon.

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One piece of the years-long project that's already ready to go is "El Ritmo Del Centro," the 5,000-square-foot mural along the site's retaining wall. (The title means "The Rhythm of the Center" in Spanish.) The colorful piece is a collaboration between a trio of local artists and members of the community, who contributed ideas and sketches over the course of many public sessions.

The mural was born out of Philadelphia's long-running Percent for Art program, which requires new city-funded construction or renovation projects to set aside up to 1% of the total budget for a public art piece tailored to the site. The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which commissions these pieces, says the development process for "El Ritmo Del Centro" began in the winter of 2020 with a call for artists for consideration. A committee of city officials, community members, public artists and staffers at the recreation center made the final selection in the summer of 2021 after rounds of design submissions and direct pitches to the Fairhill community.

Linda Fernandez, Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez of Amber Art and Design won out with their concept, which features houses and interlocking tiles with objects painted in the center. The tiles were drawn from Latin art traditions with Spanish and African roots, but the objects were drawn from community members, who sketched items significant to their identities during workshops held over the second half of 2022.

According to Fernandez, some objects repeated, making it easier to whittle down ideas for the final design. Boats, birds and elephants were common, she said, as were symbols from Taino art. (The Taino were an indigenous people in the Caribbean before conquistadors and other European explorers arrived.) She and her collaborators set them in bright pinks, blues, purples, oranges and yellows, inspired by the colorful homes seen across the Caribbean.

"I took a long time tweaking and almost making a music score of the colors that go throughout the entire length of the wall," Johnston said. "I just wanted it to almost be a song of appreciation that has colors of affinity and representation of kind of the landscapes, the urban landscapes that a lot of the people in the neighborhood have come from."

Once the design was set, the artists and Fairhill residents came together for community paint days over the spring and summer of 2023. As the mural progressed, the team attracted attention from admirers on the street — and begrudging respect from the graffiti artists who once used the drab gray wall as a practice canvas.

"We were worried that as soon as we started putting things up and started covering space on the wall, ideally permanently, that it would've then been a battleground where we would've had to have just gone over, back and forth, returning many times to spaces that we had already finished and covered and installed, but then had been accentuated with some street highlights," Johnston explained.

"The wall kept getting smaller and smaller and they kept on hitting spaces that we hadn't done yet. I'm not gonna say there were no blemishes, but it wasn't like someone had taken insult that we were taking over their space."

Though the mural has been accessible to anyone walking by 5th Street and Allegheny Avenue for nearly a year, the city officials and artists who made it happen are eager for it to officially launch with the reopened recreation and senior centers. Art like this, Fernandez says, sends a crucial message to and about the Latino community in Fairhill.

"There's a lot more development, there's a lot more change in home values," she said of the neighborhood. "And this is creating a physical and cultural displacement. We're seeing that in every city and all over Philadelphia.

"So (this is) laying stake to the community. It's proclaiming who is here in this moment in time, because that may change."

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