47 Stories: Connecting cultural communities via bus

Septa’s Route 47 bus runs the length of the city, from Whitman Plaza in South Philly to Olney in North Philadelphia, connecting immigrant and refugee communities from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin and Central America. But most of the time, riding the bus, their stories go untold.

Artists Shira Walinsky and Laura Deutch documented 47 stories from commuters on the 47 bus and wrapped bus number 8253, inside and out, with maps, photographs and parts of these stories of migration and community.

“Part of the goal overall of this past year has been to connect the refugee communities in South Philadelphia, that Southeast by Southeast has been working with for a long time, to other incredibly small and unknown communities,” said Walinsky, founder of Southeast by Southeast a mental health and community-based arts program for refugees based in South Philly and led by Mural Arts Philadelphia and the City’s Department of Behavioral Health.

On the last weekend of September, the artists met immigrants at Taller Puertorriqueño on North 5th Street and at the Southeast by Southeast storefront on South 6th Street and asked people, among other things, how they felt the first time they got on the bus.

Some responded they were afraid or scared. Many of them, like Bree Bree, 45, Naw Tha, 68, and Eh Tmui Paw, 22, had never ridden on a bus before coming to Philadelphia. They lived on farms in Myanmar and then at refugee camps in Thailand. Knowing where to get off the bus or asking simple questions, they said, quickly became hard because of language barriers.

“In Nepal we speak Nepali and it’s easier for us, here they don’t understand our language and we find quite difficult,” said Mongal Pamang, 61, a Bhutanese immigrant, through a translator.

Deutch, a Southeast by Southeast artist in residence, said the project offers an opportunity to document how immigrants are living and interacting with the city beyond South Philadelphia, where Southeast by Southeast has been working for the last five years.

“I think the bus line and the bus was kind of an obvious way to think about that, and buses have nice metaphors about journey and travel,” Deutch said.

Route 47 is a long and busy bus route that travels through a cross-section of the city. It heads north from Whitman Plaza, near Oregon Avenue, up 7th Street, traversing South Philly, up into Center City, Chinatown, and Ludlow. At Dauphin Street it turns to head up 5th Street in North Philly, passing through the Golden Blocks, Hunting Park, and Logan, ending at Godfrey Avenue in Olney. On its way back south it travels down 5th, 6th and 8th streets.

“You take the bus every morning and see the whole world on your way to work, and I thought that was just the coolest thing,” said Melissa Kim at the Taller Puertorriqueño workshop, of her old commute from Olney to Norris Square. “Just to hear other languages on the bus, just to see people how they interacted differently, and it was really, really eye-opening for me.”

For Walinsky, the project is especially relevant today because it portrays immigrants as a positive part of our city, and it aims to connect people through a shared experience in a moment when there have been a lot of negative comments around immigration nationally.

Ellen Reynolds, lives at 11th and Filbert streets and uses the 47 to go to work. One of her favorite things about the bus is seeing people from so many different backgrounds on it.

“There’s just all kind of characters,” Reynolds said. “And I like to imagine stories: Who are you? What are you thinking? What’s your life like? Where are you going? It gives me a lot of food for my imagination.”

Carlos Pardo, manager at Taller Puertorriqueño, says he usually doesn’t talk with anyone on the bus. He also prefers to daydream about what people in the bus are thinking and who they are.

“You try to see why is that guy wearing that big watch, you know. Why is he in the bus? Is his car broken? His wife just threw him out?” Pardo says joking. “Once you get in the bus, you are like in a little community, where if somebody needs help, you reach and help them with their bags or with their strollers.”

Walinsky hopes that the project inspires people who have never taken the 47 bus to ride it and discover new parts of the city.

“It’s exactly what I think we were trying to do, which is show that this bus represents just this rich diverse corridor of Philadelphia, when you go on the bus basically you’re traveling through worlds,” Walinsky said.

Deutch also hopes that those who use it will go beyond their usual stops.

“The bus is still like one of these few dying quasi-public spaces where people are forced to be together, and I just think that there are fewer and fewer of those spaces and more ways to opt out of being in those spaces,” Deutch said. “I hope people might kind of take the route and see what is like to be in that experience where you see things in a language that you don’t understand or you’re around people that otherwise you are not interacting with.”

The 47 stories bus will be on the streets until December 13th, when there will be a final project celebration at Franklin Square from 12 to 2pm.  

Wrapped Route 47 bus | courtesy of Shira Walinsky
(courtesy of Shira Walinsky)

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