Dr. J hangs in a place of honor at the South Philly ShopRite

A line of nearly 500 people snaked through the Whitman Plaza parking lot on Thursday morning. It was full of young mothers pushing strollers, young dads holding kids’ hands, elderly men leaning on gray shopping carts and gaggles of older women chatting excitedly to each other. They were waiting for their beloved South Philly ShopRite to relaunch in its new location.

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Mayor Kenny cut the ceremonial ribbon, the doors opened and the crowd rushed into the new space on Oregon Avenue. They were met by an expansive floorplan that has all the amenities of a modern gourmet market plus all the essentials of a national chain. Fresh-baked bread and muffins. Grab-and-go sushi and fried chicken. Ice cream and soda and cereal and paper towels.

Checkout registers started ringing. As the happy customers left, a calm, proud, studious face looked over them: Julius Erving, Dr. J.

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Nearly four feet high, the framed print of the Sixers legend and NBA great was one of the first things moved into the new store.

“When interior was finished and we came in to check it out, we saw a big blank wall and we went, ‘That’s the place! That’s where we’ll put Dr. J!’” says Jennifer Colligas-Moyer, who helps her mother Suzanne Colligas run the business (official name: ShopRite Colligas Family Markets).

Since 2008, Dr. J had hung in a slightly less elegant but just as prominent position at the supermarket’s previous location 1.5 miles away. There wasn’t a lot of room for the print at the old store, which had massively outgrown the space and always felt crowded and cramped. But taking down Dr. J was never an option — it meant the world to Jim Colligas.

For love of South Philly

The Colligas family was happy to move into a larger location, but sad to leave this mural behind
The Colligas family was happy to move into a larger location, but sad to leave this mural behind Credit: Mural Arts Program

Colligas, who died last year at 72, bought the Snyder Avenue ShopRite in 2005 with his wife Suzanne. Neither was born in Philadelphia, nor did they ever live here, but it became their adopted home.

“My husband just really loved South Philly,” Suzanne Colligas explains. “For years he worked for [supermarket retail co-operative] Wakefern, traveling around the region, and this was always his favorite place.”

The Colligases enmeshed themselves in the community, contributing to charities and helping wherever they good. Currently, the store is one of Philabundance’s biggest grocery partners, donating food that would otherwise be thrown away so it can instead feed Philadelphia’s hungry. Their market became a local gathering place.

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“People were really upset when we closed for a few days to make the transition to the new place,” Suzanne says. “It was like we took away their security blanket.”

Getting hooked on Mural Arts

Jim and Suzanne were also involved with the Mural Arts Program.

Shortly after buying the supermarket, the Colligases commissioned a huge mural to decorate the side of the market that faces I-95. Called “Our Urban Landscape,” it’s one of the more whimsical ones, featuring people of all ages and ethnicities in front of a Ben Franklin Bridge skyline with slices of grapefruit and kiwi flying through the air. The painting became a neighborhood icon — and sold Jim Colligas on the value of murals in general.

“I wanted to communicate to the community at-large that we are a business that serves everyone, no matter their race or ethnicity,” Jim told Mural Arts’ Virginia Harrison. “Since the mural was created, business has been up 40 percent.”

The new store even has a mural inside
The new store even has a mural inside Credit: Danya Henninger

He didn’t stop with his own business, though. He joined the Mural Arts board.

It was at an October 2008 fundraiser celebrating 25 years of the Mural Arts Program that the Dr. J print entered the Colligases life. It was one of the items offered at the event’s charity auction, and Jim Colligas was the first to shout out a bid. Then he kept bidding it up, and up, and up.

“We had never really been to an art auction before, and I don’t really think he knew what he was doing,” Suzanne says. “I was thinking, ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now!’”

Luckily, Dr. J was one of the first items on the block, and the crowd hadn’t fully gotten into it, so Colligas was able to win without fighting too many counter-bidders.

A suit, not shorts

Jim had always been a sports guy. He owned an autographed Bernie Parent Flyers jersey, and a signed photo of Brian Dawkins (both now hang in the Whitman Plaza ShopRite’s in-store cafe). He was the kind of boss store associates looked forward to chatting with about last night’s game.

But the Dr. J image is about more than just basketball.

The original Dr. J mural on Ridge Avenue
The original Dr. J mural on Ridge Avenue Credit: Google Street View

The print is an enlarged photograph of an actual mural on the side of a building at 1219 Ridge Ave., just north of Spring Garden. Painted in 1990, it was the result of a specific attempt by Mural Arts founder Jane Golden to raise the program’s profile by inviting a famous artist to create an image that really connected with the local community. She enticed her good friend Kent Twitchell to come to Philadelphia.

Nationally known for his larger than life portraits (which he refers to as “monuments”), Twitchell agreed to make Julius Erving the subject of his first work outside of California — but only if he could paint the celebrity in a suit instead of a basketball uniform.The result, which depicts Dr. J looking dignified and proud in impeccable dress, was a huge success. According to the organization, it’s the only Mural Arts work that was painted into the background of another mural (the panorama on the Spring Garden Bridge).

Thanks to Jim Colligas, the image is known and recognized by thousands more.

Suzanne Colligas stands in front of the Dr. J print in its new home
Suzanne Colligas stands in front of the Dr. J print in its new home Credit: Danya Henninger

Hanging in his new home over the checkout aisles, Dr. J looks perfectly in place. His ecru suit even matches the beige walls of the store.

“My husband would have loved to see him there,” says Suzanne. “It was meant to be.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...