On a secluded street in South Philadelphia, an unusual duo of crime-fighters hopes to fend off night lurkers.
Mural artist David Guinn and lighting designer Drew Billiau have combined their talents on "The Electric Street," an illuminated neon mural on Percy Street between Reed and Wharton, down the block from the iconic cheesesteak spots Pat's and Geno's, in an alleyway hidden by the unusual curve of the block.
Low-energy flexineon LEDs bend with the curve of the paint on the 30-by-15-foot wall spanning the backs of two residences. The installation uses more than 200 feet of light, hooked up to a program that Billiau can control from his computer.
The shape and shadows of the block encourage illicit activity, a problem for which the Passyunk Square Civic Association has been searching for an answer since 2011. Just the other day, the wall was defaced with graffiti. But the civic association aims to use a maintenance budget to expand the light and art down the block.
Research on the effects of city lights on crime is mixed: Some analyses suggest that well-lit streets deter crime, while others imply that it just helps criminals get a better view of their targets.
In the past year, police data show, no crimes have been reported on the small stretch of Percy Street that juts out from Reed Street and ends just before Wharton Street. But 15 thefts and nine thefts from vehicles were reported within a block of the area. Residents said trash, condoms, public urination, and drug deals are not uncommon on Percy.
"People would show up in the alley and buy drugs halfway down that little block," said Sam Albright, who owns one of the houses covered by the mural. "It was almost like a regular occurrence where we were walking down that block and seeing that."
But Albright said he's already noticing more people on the block - to take pictures, not to buy drugs.
"We wanted, instead of having it be this dingy place, making it something people would want to go to rather than avoid," said former PSCA Beautification chairman Andrew Emma. It was Emma who'd suggested at a 2014 holiday party that Guinn, also a Passyunk Square resident, design the space.
Guinn had earned a $9,000 grant from the Knight Foundation's Arts Challenge the year before, matching his own fundraising with the help of the Mural Arts Program. His proposal involved getting artists to paint murals around Fergie's Pub at 1214 Sansom St. until construction forced him to find a new space.
After years of contemplating Christmas lights and other fixtures to brighten the block, the beautification committee finally had found a more sophisticated solution once Guinn teamed up with Billiau, who typically lights stages.
At first, the pair thought they'd simply light the entire block in an artistic way. But soon they decided to combine paint with light to make a single piece of art.
"The lights don't serve the paint. They kind of work together," Guinn said. "It became kind of a holistic thing."
Guinn and Billiau already are talking with other homeowners on the block about using their walls to expand the project. Guinn said he aims for the next section to be completed within the next year.
For now, Albright is enjoying the peace and fame the artwork has brought.
"It's cool," he said. "It's like our house is a little bit famous."