Poor Philadelphia: The Other Side of City Life in Philly Painting

Home sick and watching videos. Came across two new documentaries about the Philly Painting project, which I first explored a few months ago. I’ve been struggling to understand the scale of the project, but noneless its drawn me in and I’ve been watching it with curiosity.

North Philadelphia is stressed. There has been a lot of media coverage about the Philly Painting project, much of which glosses over the extent of the damage in the neighborhood, both structural and emotional. It’s interesting that Hub Footwear, a dutch sneaker brand and maker of the videos, would take one of the most objective looks. The documentaries represent another track of life in Philadelphia, the true realities of which took a back seat in many reports on the mural. How real does it get? Watch the artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn explain to filmmakers why they don’t wear seatbelts – you never know when you’ll need to duck and cover from gunfire riding through North Philly.

Sit back and watch, if you’re interested in neighborhood dynamics, poverty and violence in cities, art, and community. Highly recommend, even if I now have more questions than before.

If you’re following the Philly Painting project for the longhaul, another story worth reading is architecture critic Inga Saffron’s review, which asked whether or not the colorful intervention will actually drive economic growth in the commercial corridor and result in measaurable impact. “It’s naive to think that painting over this depopulated blightscape can do anything more than mask the avenue’s failure,” wrote Saffron. That critique was pounced on by many, but none of the responses adequately discussed what is next for the corridor, important for a number of reasons.

The project afterall was positioned by the City of Philadelphia as part of a “larger economic development plan” for the neighborhood. Even the people in the video below are asking, “What’s next” – from the artists themselves to shoppers and residents.

“Enthusiasm can turn pretty quickly into disappointment,” says Gary P. Steuer, the City’s Chief Cultural Officer, adding “we need to think about how we sustain that enthusiasm.”

At the closing of the short follow-up vide, a member of the painting crew comments –

“A lot of people making promises, so we waiting to see if people put they money where they mouth is at.”

Philly Painting is a complex project, worthy of continued exploration.

So what is next?

These are appropriate questions.

Philly Painting is a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program and the Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, also known as Haas & Hahn (or the Favela Painters). 

[8 min. Challenge the Obvious: This is not the end – January 2013]

Dre Urhahn: “You don’t paint questions away, you paint them to the surface… What happens next? What happens with the street after its painted?”

[30 min. Challenge the Obvious: A day in the life of Haas & Hahn – September 2012]

Jereon Koolhaas: “[American] people have the idea that when you are poor, that you are not really living life.”

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