West Philly mural tells tales of teens searching for home

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On 42 Street in West Philadelphia, a block off Lancaster Avenue,  a green lawn marks the place where half a dozen houses once stood.

Two new colorful, narrative murals, flank the walls of rows houses that make an “L” shape around the lawn and were created by homeless youth and shaped by professional artists.

If you remember some of the old colorful tourist maps where little drawings marked worthy sites, you’ll get a sense of the new murals.  They are the road maps of people’s lives, young teen mothers, high school students who’s housing situation is in constant flux, the youth who prefers not to be called homeless. 

“Sometimes I feel I’m too young to be witnessing a lot of things,” said a young woman who only wants to be identified as Delilah. “I was too young to witness a lot of things and that has made me who I am. At certain times I have to rely on myself, because I have to be independent, because I know at the end of the day no one else is going to do what I have to do.”

For the past year and a half Delilah and other teens have been meeting at a nearby storefront  on Lancaster Avenue, rented by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. It’s a hub for the Journey to Home project.  Visiting on countless Friday afternoons to meet the students and tape interviews and sounds, I saw how it became a workshop, and a gathering place for conversation and art making. It was also a place for the exchange of information about social and community youth services. Some of the work that became part of the two wall mural called “Home Safe,” starfted here.

“Art can be a means of escape,” explained muralist Ernel Martinez.  He and Shira Walinski guided the teens through the project. “Some of the young people that we work with have dealt with a more difficult reality than most and their resilience really inspires me,” Martinez said.

Walinski was interested in a group of teen mothers living at Gloria’s Place, a temporary housing center for women.

To help them tell their stories she started with two questions: where are you from and where are you going?  

These conversations full of passion and hope give the colorful mural it’s words and structure.  The style has a wood cut quality where roads and symbols depict furniture and household items.  The whole work is peppered with phrases such as “building a new dream,” “my hard times,” “living from house to house” and “home safe.” It looks like a brilliantly-colored board game.

To get here, it did really take a village of artists, social service counselors, youth rights advocates, educators, students  and neighborhood people. In a makeshift studio on site, they recorded their stories. They speak of adversity and isolation, struggle and displacement , families divided and attempts at building new families.  Violence is one of the common threads.  

Sixteen-year-old Marquise told of how the  simple act  of leaving his house to go to school can be fraught with danger.

“One day were actually face to face with death because a man had his gun pointed [it at us] and stuff like that,” he said. “No hesitation, we just ran for our lives and I feel we shouldn’t have to do stuff like that.”

The transcribed interviews also provided the lyrics for rap songs and poetry.

The regular participants were employed by Mural Arts. For many it was their first job. Artist Ernel Martinez says working in the mural project gives young people real life skills such as learning music and video production, design and graphic arts. The idea is the teens will build portfolios that can be used to apply to college or land a job.

The Safe Place murals will be dedicated Friday afternoon.

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