‘Philly Painting’ program seeks to revitalize portion of Germantown Avenue

A kick-off celebration for Philly Painting, the latest art initiative from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, was held Wednesday afternoon at the corner of Germantown Avenue and West Huntingdon Street.

The project will transform a four-block stretch of Germantown Avenue, east of Broad Street in North Philadelphia, over the next several months and give full-time painting jobs to local residents. The goal is to revitalize one of the city’s oldest commercial corridors and use the project as a way to market the community.

Philly Painting involves large-scale mural projects which will cover entire buildings to create a new and colorful face for city blocks. With the talents of two world-renowned Dutch painters, Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas (or “Haas & Hahn”), the project will transform the streetscapes.

The duo are participating in a year-long artist residency in the city. Their previous work focuses on bringing art to unexpected places including their Rio de Janiero “favela painting” project.

“We want to be a catalyst for change,” said Koolhaas.

“City of Murals”

Mayor Michael Nutter noted at the event that it is wonderful to have Haas & Hahn working in the city.

“This is a city of murals, and the community is embracing it,” he said. “We love our art, we love our neighbors and we love being right here on Germantown Avenue.”

Mural Arts Program executive director Jane Golden said she hopes the project will become an economic-development catalyst. She hopes to light the murals at night both to showcase the art and promote public safety.

“We want this to be a model. Good things can be contagious,” Golden said. “This is a great nexus for public art. We’re looking at how art could tip the corridor in a positive direction.”

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said the section of Germantown Avenue being painted is one of the strongest in North Philadelphia.

“People said we don’t see activity here from the city,” said Clarke. “Now you will see a change in the face of the neighborhood. This is something the neighbors want.”

He said that after the project concludes, he wants to continue work in the area.

“We need to help these guys start their own business at Germantown and Lehigh,” said Clarke of locals hired for the painting project.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Koolhaas said the duo recruited residents for the Philly Painting crew by putting signs up around the neighborhood. Early on, he worried about community skepticism, though.

“This neighborhood has had its share of broken promises,” said Koolhaas, “but once we started painting in April, people would tap on my shoulder and ask if there were more jobs.”

Having local crew members also helps to connect other neighbors and families to the project, he added.

Crew member Reggie Johnson said a friendship has already developed between the workers and Haas & Hahn.

“We work with each other, we laugh, we forget we’re getting paid,” he said. “I think this project can bring back this neighborhood how it used to be.”

Getting it off the ground

Philly Painting was awarded a $100,000 grant through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Grant, an award which is part of a larger $2.7 million grant funding 36 projects throughout the city. (Disclaimer: WHYY/Newsworks receives funding from the Knight Foundation.)

Urhahn said the most complex part of the project has been tracking down all of the property owners, particularly those of vacant properties, to get them on board.

“There’s more than 100 buildings and it’s like a puzzle trying to find out who owns it, getting in contact with them, having them choose their design,” Koolhaas said, adding that property owners were able to select an individual color scheme.

Sami Han, owner of Hart’s Clothes at 2563 Germantown Ave., has been in business for more than 30 years. When initially approached, Hahn was unsure, but now understands that they want to beautify the area.

“I am so glad to see the neighborhood kids working,” said Han. “I hope it will be a good thing. I look and I see the finished building and I then look at the old one. It’s better.”

Crew member Lateef Rawls said he hopes the project will move the community in a positive direction.

“It brings diversity to the neighborhood. Just look at all the people here today,” said Rawls. “It’s nice to see. We want people to come here and shop and spend some money, and bring life back to this area.”

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