Celebrating South Philly’s circles of life

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has unveiled a new public art project that has nothing to do with murals. The four-part installation uses storefront awnings, newspapers, dance-instruction footprints, and a zoetrope to tell the stories of South Philadelphians.

A zoetrope is a 19th-century machine that creates the illusion of moving pictures. Photographer R.A. Friedman made one from bicycle gears and a hand crank that spins a drum with vertical slits cut into the side.

If you look inside the spinning drum, you can see images of senior citizens from a neighborhood around Seventh and Snyder streets.

“The only time they were ever away from the neighborhood for any protracted period of time was during one of the wars the U.S. has been involved in,” said Friedman. “A lot of them were World War II vets, some were Korean vets as well. That was the only time they were ever away from their home, or family or their neighborhood.”

Some residents of South Philadelphia find there is little reason to leave their neighborhood.

“It’s a place that houses life from beginning to end,” said Amanda Miller, a choreographer involved with the project and a 10-year resident of South Philadelphia. “Grocery stores, banks, post office, it’s all here.”

Her partner, Tobin Rothlein, describes the arc of their neighborhood’s self-contained world: “Negligee shops, baby shops, wedding shops, grocery stores, and funeral homes.”

The face of South Philadelphia has been changing over the last several years, as more Asian and Hispanic families have moved in.

As co-founders of the Miro dance company, Rothlein and Miller have interpreted their neighbors’ lives into installation pieces. In a defunct barber shop in the 1700 block of Passyunk Avenue, the chairs are rigged with headphones playing back oral histories of residents and how they came to be in South Philly.

On the sidewalk outside, choreographer Miller pasted footprints onto the concrete, like dance-instruction patterns. One of those patterns traces the journey of Veronne Romeoletti, whose dance cycles back on itself.

“It’s a continuous circle. It never ends and it never begins,” he said.

Romeoletti grew up in West Philadelphia. After an abusive childhood, he kept moving around the city, finally settling in South Philadelphia. He says he’s a kung fu master, fashion consultant, and concert singer.

“If it wasn’t for martial arts, I probably would be doing the opposite of what I’m doing now,” he said. “Opposite of martial arts is self-destruction, baby.”

The public art project, called Journeys South, includes awnings in the Italian Market and broadsheet newspapers in black honor boxes. The projects will be in place until the end of July.

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