‘Electric Street’ lights up overlooked alley with color, possibility

Listen

A new electric mural officially opened in South Philadelphia Tuesday evening, lighting up a hidden alley that has had problems with trash and drug activity. It the first stage of a planned art walk.

The 1300 block of Percy Street is not really a street — it’s more of an alley connecting 9th Street and Reed Street by turning twice between the backsides of residential and commercial buildings. Those turns make it blind to the main streets, perfect for criminal activity.

But to an artist, it’s like Disneyland.

“It is a place that unfolds as you move through,” said muralist David Guinn. “Unlike a straight street where you can see the end, you really don’t know what’s coming up on Percy street until you round the first corner, then the second corner. So it’s an experience, it keeps unfolding in front of you.”

Guinn created “Electric Street,” a 30-foot mural made with paint and bars of light. It looks like neon, but it’s actually a plastic LED system resistant to vandalism. Because it is LED, it can be programmed to shift color, flicker, and appear to move.

The mural is on the back walls of two contiguous buildings, which supply electricity to the LED system. Because the system is so energy efficient, Guinn said, the buildings’ owners have been saddled with a bill of about $3 a month.

Guinn composed the paint and his partner, Drew Billiau, designed the light.

Together, they made an abstraction of a waterfall.

“We thought it would be a beautiful phenomenon to walk up to — a silent waterfall at night,” said Guinn.

He said he hopes it is the first phase of his imagined artistic promenade through the entire 400-foot alley.

The project, just a few yards from the neon beast that is Geno’s Steaks, has the support of the Passyunk Square Civic Association, which wants to enliven the problematic block. The alley is the dark side of an otherwise high-traffic area, a link between the Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak hub and the booming restaurant row of lower Passyunk Avenue.

For years, the association has been looking for ways to wrestle that blind alley away from dereliction, floating ideas like repaving, a poetry mural, and installing green spaces. Nothing got any traction.

“The idea is to turn eyes on it, and make it something everyone wants to take care of,” said association treasurer Sarah Anton. “When that happens — when more people are paying attention to it — there are more eyes on the street.”

“Electric Street” cost $1,800, funded in large part by the Knight Arts Challenge and Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. After it was completed in June, it became immediately popular with pedestrians as a place to take selfies for Instagram. Both Guinn and the neighborhood association are trying to leverage that popularity into support to expand the project through the entire alleyway.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.