New tour illustrates Philadelphia’s African-American culture

Philadelphia has well over 3,000 murals, and now the Mural Arts Program has packaged some of them together as an African-American cultural tour.

It’s the latest effort to revitalize interest in the outdoor paintings, many of which are fading both physically and in memory.

The Albert M. Greenfield African American Iconic Images Collection highlights 21 walls — mostly in North and West Philadelphia — and gives them the full treatment: a website chock-full of backstory, oral histories from their creators, teaching materials and an audio tour narrated by Questlove, the drummer from The Roots.

The Mural Arts Program always develops murals out of workshops held within the neighborhood receiving the painting. The sometimes arduous process engages neighbors in a creative process that generates an image representing the local community.

For example, the image of four boxers on Broad Street near Girard Avenue was painted on the building housing the Legendary Blue Horizon, a storied boxing facility. The images represent Mohammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and George Foreman.

“I was asked to have one boxer, and I suggested four,” said building owner Vernoca Michael, billed as the world’s first female African-American boxing promoter. “The first one they asked me about was of course Muhammad Ali, but Joe Frazier and the Frazier family were all friends”

The multimedia materials supporting the boxing mural tour features sportswriters explaining how the image represents the city’s boxing legacy.

Many murals in Philadelphia are painted on walls deep inside residential neighborhoods, created by neighbors, for themselves. They are often overlooked by outsiders.

“But we want people to go into the neighborhoods,” said Jane Golden, Mural Arts Program director. “The stories are universal, and they are what give Philadelphia a certain character. As cities grow and evolve and change, all this could be lost. How do we hold onto what makes our city rich?”

Golden regards the 3,000-plus murals around the city akin to a museum collection, one that can be drawn from and selectively curated to tell stories of the city.

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