Italian Market stuck in the middle with Frank Rizzo mural

The Frank Rizzo mural after it was vandalized.

When David Neukirch bought a corner property at Ninth and Salter Streets two years ago, here’s what he got: A modest-size Italian restaurant with a decent Yelp pedigree; a coveted location in the iconic Italian Market; and a three-story vandalism magnet, the Frank Rizzo mural.

Over the years, Neukirch has gotten used to the occasional graffiti on his south wall, home to the hulking mural of the former mayor — the city’s most defaced. “END COPS 4EVA,” someone will scrawl in black; or “FASCISTA” in red; or the perennial “F– POLICE.” Then the Mural Arts Program, which commissioned the mural, will send someone out to clean off the graffiti; merchants will update their compendium of Things People Wrote on Rizzo’s Face; and the market will go back to business as usual.

But last week, when the mural facing Montrose Street was defaced again, something had changed. In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, in the midst of a national conversation about the kinds of people we memorialize — and in a rapidly changing city still grappling with Rizzo’s intensely polarizing legacy — Mural Arts officials had begun to talk about taking the mural down entirely.

The final decision will likely not come easily, officials say. The mural is not on public land, so the mayor’s office has little official say. Mural Arts can decide whether to pull the mural down — and it aims to decide, with a planned series of conversations with local leaders. Neukirch could also ask for the mural to be taken down. But either way, Mural Arts needs Neukirch’s permission to carry out any work on the building.

Camera icon Jonathan Wilson
The owner of Nina’s Trattoria, David Neukirch, in his restaurant at 910 S. Ninth St.

It’s a debate that goes far beyond a mural on the wall of Nina’s Trattoria in an old neighborhood undergoing rapid change. And it’s one that Neukirch, who  serves Sicilian dishes to old-school Rizzo lovers and newcomers alike, wants absolutely no part of.

Neukirch, a 31-year-old Italian American from Medford, won’t say what he thinks of Rizzo himself — “I have not even processed that aspect of it,” he said. Whatever happens to the mural, he says, he just doesn’t want to be blamed for it.

Much of the conversation around Rizzo’s memorials has focused on his statue, which sits on city land outside the Municipal Services Building. But in the Italian Market, where many of the merchants say they knew Rizzo personally, the debate is just as fierce.

Some say they could not care less whether the mural comes down, and in the same breath sing his praises as a law-and-order man. Some cringe at a mural lionizing a man they say represented the city at its worst, whose legacy of police brutality, racism, and homophobia still cuts deep.

Some merchants are just worried about continued vandalism. “People are going to think the neighborhood isn’t safe,” said Raul Aguilar, who owns Los Amigos Food Market across the street. (He was staying out of the larger debate: “I respect everyone.”)

And last week, the market’s Facebook page reposted an angry screed by Rizzo’s former secretary calling Mural Arts founder Jane Golden and City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who has led calls to take down the statue, racists. The market’s board wrote three subsequent apologies, then shut down the page, but not before residents had spent days arguing in the comments.

“I’ve been shopping here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anyone take a glance at that mural,” said Rob Neddoff, who works on nearby Passyunk Avenue. “And now, with this crap, parents are stopping by and taking pictures with their kids. I don’t care if it comes down.” (He had hit on a compromise, he thought: put a plaque on the mural detailing the mayor’s complicated history. “You have to look at both sides of the man.”)

Neukirch, on the other hand, was concerned about the graffiti — and his Bentley, the one he parks out back. Someone had keyed it. He’s worried the events are connected. And on the mural out front, someone had written “Kill Killer Cops” and “RIP DAVID.” The latter was widely assumed to be a reference to David Jones, killed by Philadelphia police this year. Neukirch saw only his own first name. He said police had been helpful.

The current graffiti on the mural will be repaired, said Joan Reilly, chief operating officer of Mural Arts. Then the thornier work begins — the meetings to address the mural’s fate. No other mural in the city inspires such debate, she said — or graffiti with such a political message. And it’s a significant cost for the organization to keep repairing it — five times since 2010, she said.

“It’s a complex question about representation — who does the representing, and who’s getting represented,” said  Golden. “For 30 years, we’ve really tried hard to do work that reflects people’s lives. Art has power — and these are very important conversations happening here in Philly and across the country.”

The conversation about what to do with the mural would involve Neukirch and the owner of the lot that it abuts, she said, but also churches, civic leaders, and elected officials. The Italian Market has changed, Golden said: “There are different experiences, different perspectives that need to be represented.”

Neukirch, in his restaurant last week, said he wants assurance that whatever happens to the mural, he won’t bear the brunt of criticism. “All I ever wanted was a decision and protection,” he said.

“I just bought the building,” he said. “I didn’t sign up for this.”