Manayunk Towpath mural adds new energy to the trail

A vibrant mural project is underway along the Manayunk Towpath near the Green Lane Bridge. 

The artist, Paul Santoleri, has been working on the mixed-media mural for the past month and said it’s all part of a bigger vision to transform the Schuylkill River Trail. 

“It’s really a special spot,” Santoleri said. “The bridge itself is a little ecosystem.”

At times, the ecosystem has been overpowered by industrial debris. But the Schuylkil Project, an initiative of the Manayunk Development Corporation, along with the city of Philadelphia, has been working to clean up and beautify the area.

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Most recently, according to Schuylkill Project Director Kay Sykora, the group, along with other local partners, has been working to clean up the Manayunk Canal and restore the area’s native wildlife.

Art, according to Sykora, makes the area more interesting and appealing to trail users.

“It gives the area animation and excitement,” she said. 

Before sketching out the mural, Santoleri said, “I spent some time absorbing the place and trying to make something that belongs.”

His final design features glass tiles that encapsulate pressed flowers collected from the neighborhood and from his travels around the world, concrete structures of fish and flowers, mosaic and paint.

The idea, he says, is to take the previously graffiti-tagged area, and transform it into something the whole community can appreciate. “It’s a way that you can activate a surface that’s maybe had some treatment, but not the kind of treatment the community wants to see.”

Throughout the month, he’s noticed many familiar faces while working on the project.

“The same joggers go by,” he said. “The same bikers come out here from way outside the city.”

Most passersby stop to congratulate him on the progress. Some have even volunteered to help him out – and Santoleri usually takes them up on their offers.

The MDC selected Santoleri, who works with the Mural Arts Program, after considering various pitches. His previous work includes murals at the Philadelphia Zoo and World Café live.

A key motif in his art is the DNA double helix. “As we’re mapping the inside of our cells, it’s almost like we’re mapping out our space at the same time,” he said. “It makes you pause for a minute and think.”

Which, according to Santoleri, is the whole point of public art.

“It also really works to slow down the bikers,” he says. “A lot of times they just go whizzing by, but when they pass by here they slow down to check out the mural.”

The mural is expected to be complete by the end of this week. 

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