Philadelphia spruces itself up for the Democratic National Convention

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City workers Tim Farnon and Jonathan Hurt remove graffiti from a wall on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

City workers Tim Farnon and Jonathan Hurt remove graffiti from a wall on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

The city is cleaning house.

In a warehouse near Philadelphia International Airport, Mat Tomezsko has spent every waking moment of the last few weeks painting. “A 12-hour day is a short day, and I don’t even sit down for 10 minutes to take a break,” said Tomezsko, who’s wearing a paint-splattered t-shirt and pants. “I just have been moving and making this thing.”

MedianMat Tomezsko works on a project for the DNC at a warehouse near Philadelphia International Airport. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)

Tomezsko is heading up a group of artists on a project the city is unveiling for the Democratic National Convention. It’s a stretch of multi-colored stripes painted on vinyl in shades of blue, pink, orange, green, and purple and then laid down along a sidewalk median on Broad Street between South Philadelphia and City Hall.

“Each stripe is an opportunity for the painter to express themselves and do something really exciting,” he said. “It’s color, but it’s also a lot of movement and energy.”

Tomezsko imagines all the people who’ll see the median — during the convention and after. “I want somebody who’s just walking by and just says ‘hey, cool, there’s color on the street,’ and then I want people who, if they’re interested, can spend time with it and be fascinated by it all the way down to the final details,” he said.

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Andrew Grasso, an artist on the median project, paints one of the stripes. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)

The project, supported by the city’s Mural Arts Program and funded through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is part of Philadelphia’s plan to spruce itself up leading up to the DNC.

Cleaning house

While Tomezsko is laying paint down, in other parts of Philly, city workers are erasing it. In a parking lot on Washington Avenue, workers in yellow vests power wash graffiti from white walls. And on a rooftop, another crew member in a blue jumpsuit rolls paint over a brick wall that’s been tagged with graffiti.

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It took crew member Michael Johnson about 20 minutes to cover up the graffiti. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

The workers are “cleaning the major arteries,” of graffiti before the DNC, said Edward Guzak, the deputy director for the graffiti abatement arm of the city’s Community Life Improvement Program. Guzak has been with the team for 20 years, starting as a laborer and working his way up.

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Edward Guzak, the deputy director of CLIP’s anti-graffiti program, supervised the work on Tuesday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

He was born just down the street in a grey stone house where his grandmother used to scrub the steps clean.

Standing next to him, crew member Maynard Sabb says the team’s work never ends. “Once we do this here, [in] two or three days, they might hit it again,” Sabb said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Planting flowers

Later that afternoon, on the other side of the city, a couple of workers plant red, white, and blue flowers along Ben Franklin Parkway from 16th Street to 18th Street.

Joshua Bell, a park manager for Philadelphia Parks and Recretation, is holding pots of white vincus flowers. It’s hot, he’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants, and he’s been working since 7 a.m.

Flowers Christian Cooper (left), a seasonal maintenance assistant for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and Joshua Bell get ready to plant some flowers. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)

“We wanted it to look nice for the DNC,” Bell said.

He’s already seeing his work pay off.

“A lot of people even just today passing by had said ‘ooh, beautiful flowers.’ Some people were like ‘oh, you can do my house next!’ You know, that type of thing.”

The benefits to the city

The city sees the DNC as an opportunity. “We want to make sure that our streets are clean, that our potholes are filled, that our planters have flowers in them, and that we show our national and international visitors what a great city Philadelphia is,” said Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia’s first deputy managing director.

The city itself is spending about $190,000 on beautification efforts. The DNC host commitee is spending about the same, and private donors are funding even more.

The city has come a long way since it hosted the Republican National Convention in 2000, says Jennifer Nagle, who, as the vice president of business development for the Independence Visitors Center Corporation, is helping the host committee with its efforts. Since then, Philadelphia has sprouted pop-up beer gardens, waterfront trails, and new restaurants.

The approach is to play that stuff up. “It hasn’t been all about needing to fix things. It’s been more of how can we showcase what we’ve done these past 16 years.”

Now, they just need the delegates to go out and explore the city.

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