Why Fishtown’s Rocket Cat Cafe and its iconic murals are basically gone

Controversy over a salvage sale explained.

Instagram/@feralcatcolonist/used with permission

Updated 9:55 a.m.

Right now, Rocket Cat Cafe looks like it exists in a war zone.

Amid piles of metal scraps, cracked slats of wood and chunks of broken bricks, all that’s left standing of the OG Fishtown coffee shop is a single room with the shadow of a former stairway forlornly crawling up its side.

The giant painting of a space cat that’s welcomed customers to the Frankford Avenue corner for the past decade is gone — and so is a 2015 wall mural by Caledonia Curry, aka Swoon, which was created as part of Mural Arts’ Open Source PHL project.

But its new owners, who two months ago told Billy Penn the shop would be closing temporarily for “renovations,” promise that the cafe is still coming back.

The building was just in way worse shape than anyone thought.

“We knew that there were several L&I violations on the property that we needed to address,” said Debbie Anday, who bought the property and business with husband Jean-Paul Viera last year.

“Our plan was to demo the garage and replace the facade walls,” she explained. But after contractors removed the roof to begin reconstruction, “it was apparent that much more work needed to be done.” The cafe was actually built across two adjacent buildings, and when someone connected them, a structurally-important staircase was removed. Without it, the facade began to buckle.

Once contractors started, the danger was such that demolition had to happen quickly — so quickly that there wasn’t time to save either of the iconic murals that graced the building’s facade.

That’s not for lack of trying.

Chris Stock, owner of Philadelphia Salvage Company, had previously developed a procedure for saving a mural during building demolition. Although it didn’t work on the Banksy Brewerytown piece for which it was originally intended, he was excited about the opportunity to try again at Rocket Cat. Anday and Viera were interested, but in the end the young couple couldn’t find a way to afford it.

“They were really into saving it,” Stock said, “but it was just too much money. I mean, I get it, they don’t own Google.”

Instead, the murals were turned into rubble. Although where some see “rubble,” Stock sees art.

He asked the contractor what would happen to the various painted chunks of brick and was told they were headed to the trash heap. So instead, he took two truckloads of them to his seven-year-old business, where he’s offering them up for sale. (Anday and Viera were unaware of this until Billy Penn drew it to their attention.) Per Philadelphia Salvage’s Instagram, pieces are going for between $5 and $15.

“It’s what I do,” he said. “It’s not like I’m selling them for a million bucks.”

Mural Arts doesn’t have an official policy on reselling murals, per communications director Nicole Steinberg, “basically because it has never come up.” But the organization does wish it had been contacted before the demo happened.

“Mural Arts does not resell murals or fragments of murals for profit, given that we typically share copyright with the artists—and in some cases, the artist holds the full copyright. We do not support a third-party business making a profit off an artist’s original work without that artist’s approval,” Steinberg wrote in an emailed statement.

For her part, Anday says she did reach out to Mural Arts via email, but never heard anything back.

Acknowledging that it’s too late to do anything about this one, Steinberg added a plea for the future: “We appreciate that Philadelphia is undergoing rapid change in its physical landscape. Therefore, we ask that property owners and developers across the city work directly with us.”

Meanwhile, the good news: Rocket Cat’s coming back.

The plans remain mostly the same as before the demolition: A larger food menu (though not yet a full kitchen), more and better coffee options that include Viera’s Haiti-sourced beans, an enhanced backyard space for customers and private apartments above the cafe.

Given the state of the building, Anday does not yet have a target date for reopening. But stay tuned.

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