Project brings color - and hopefully business - to North Philadelphia

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Dutch muralists Jeroen Koolhaas (left) and Dre Urhahn are leading the Mural Arts Program’s Philly Painting of geometric murals from the 2500 to the 2800 blocks of Germantown Avenue. The year-long project aims to marry art and economic development. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Against the backdrop of a gray primer, painters fill in numbered squares and stripes with the corresponding shade of blue, red or yellow.

But this isn’t paint by numbers. This is the 2500 block of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia, and the first of more than 100 buildings being painted for Mural Arts Program’s Philly Painting.

The project, now in its third week of painting, is Mural Arts’ largest endeavor yet. In addition to bringing in Dutch painting duo Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, the geometric murals will stretch from the 2500 to the 2800 blocks of Germantown and include a large-scale mural in Center City.

The year-long project represents a marriage between art and economic development, the goal being to bring art to the community and then community to the art, increasing area business. So far, a need for painters has created 12 paid jobs for local residents, 10 of whom live within walking distance of the project, and received support from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce.

"This community is painting itself," Urhahn said. "It’s not just the city that comes through there. The people that pass on the street don’t see the city, they see their own cousins and neighbors and sons and daughters. They see the guys they know from the block, they see them paint."

Koolhaas and Urhahn, also called Haas and Hahn, moved into a rowhouse off Germantown Avenue in September and will stay in Philadelphia until after Philly Painting is dedicated in October. Koolhaas is currently taking 10 days off to visit his two-month-old daughter in Rotterdam.

The artists were brought in because of their Favela Painting in Brazil, which stretched splashes of color across Rio de Janeiro’s hillside slums in a project that was completed in 2010 in an effort to bring positive attention to the community. Mural Arts was able to bring in the artists after receiving and matching a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge.

The idea behind Philly Painting was to weave color throughout an entire corridor, creating a project larger and more cohesive than any of the single 3,500 murals or works of public art Mural Arts has done since its inception in 1984, said Jane Golden, director of Mural Arts.

To Golden, who grew up in Margate, N.J., Philadelphia is like a beautiful quilt.

"It’s delightful and inspiring, and together the quilt is even more beautiful than the parts," Golden said. Philly Painting’s multi-block canvas aims to bring together more of those parts. The changed facades will hopefully encourage more outsiders to visit the area and encourage new business, Golden said.

Community members and store owners are kept involved throughout the process, with owners selecting the colors for their building from a more-than-50-color palette derived from shades Koolhaas found and photographed throughout the city.

Crews are also making small repairs, but Urhahn said some buildings are beyond easy repair and may not be painted. His favorite building on Germantown Avenue, the Sun Pay building at the corner of Lehigh Avenue, is almost completely boarded up, with paint peeling and bricks buldging in some areas.

Tok Hui Kelly, 58, owns One Plus Seven Variety Store on the 2600 block of Germantown, one of the first buildings painted. Kelly’s store was wrapped in blues and pinks and, although undecided on the look, Kelly doesn’t regret the decision.

"I did it for this community, to give people jobs," Kelly said.

When Steve Nam, 40, the owner of CK Wigs on Germantown Avenue for seven years, heard about the project, his first reaction was of concern, fearing the construction would turn away customers. Since the painting has started, he’s warmed up to the idea, and hopes the bright colors will pull in customers once completed.

Urhahn said he hoped the painting project would encourage others to look around and take in the beauty of Germantown Avenue. He said the people and businesses he has worked with will stay with him even after he leaves.

"You don’t just pass through," he said. "In 30 years, I will still dream of these walls."

 

Contact Dara McBride at dmcbride@philly.com or 610-854-5626.