Artist rendering of the final mural

Update: As of Oct. 6, the mural is officially complete.

A two-story-high raccoon eating a soft pretzel is apparently all you need to inspire Philadelphians to give back to their community.

A GoFundMe campaign started by 33-year-old Olde Richmond resident Natalie Shaak to paint a mural of that very Philly image on the exterior of the house she bought last winter — in order to spark the revitalization of the playground the house overlooks — raised more than three-quarters of its $4,000 goal in just seven days.

Donations have come from more than three dozen people, most in small amounts ranging from $5 to $50. The biggest boost happened on Thursday night, when one person kicked in a whopping $2,000 to the cause.

“I assume it was someone who lives in the area, but I don’t know him,” Shaak told Billy Penn, noting that the generous donor wished to stay anonymous.

Shaak, who has given her campaign the hashtag #phillytrashpanda, has been floored by the response. “At first it was my sisters and friends donating, because I shared it on Facebook,” she said, “but all these people who don’t even know me? I’m truly inspired.”

The mural will be painted by VURT Creative as part of its Local Critter Project. If you’re ever in Fishtown, you’ve probably seen some of the others in the series. That squirrel chomping on a SEPTA token is one, and so is the giant pigeon. VURT also did the “Fishtown Cats” mural along Frankford Avenue, which is how Shaak connected with them in July.

“I was riding the bus to work when I saw it, and it made me laugh out loud. I love that the stuff they’re doing is kind of wacky — we all need a break sometimes,” she said.

VURT’s Evan Lovett came up with the raccoon-pretzel idea, per Justin Bertsch, community outreach coordinator at the nonprofit, whose name stands for Visual Urban Renewal and Transformation. “Evan is a full-time tattoo artist and he’s got a brilliant mind when it comes to stuff like this,” he said.

VURT is hoping to do six Philly Critter Project murals in total (just wait till you hear what quirky Fishtown object their painted possum will be holding…), and were already looking for a spot to put the raccoon when Shaak reached out. Plus, both Bertsch and Lovett have lived and worked in the Riverwards since they were teenagers, Bertsch explained, so they’re familiar with the state of the playground they’re about to enliven with their image.

The blank wall of Shaak’s house that will be painted with the mural Credit: Google Street View

“Everyone knows the stigma that Wawa brings,” Bertsch said, referring to the store at 2535 Aramingo Ave., which is right across from the playground at the corner of Webb, East Thompson and East Sergeant streets. “The first day we went out there to meet Natalie, there was drug paraphernalia everywhere.”

Shaak had been searching for someone to paint a mural on that wall for several months as part of a way to clean up the playground, which is adjacent to the house she bought in December 2016. There is a small climbing set at its center, but it’s tagged with graffiti. The floor is torn and the benches have peeling paint. As it stands now, the park is more often used by adults than kids, she said.

“There needs to be a place where kids can be creative and use their imagination, a goofy environment — and what’s goofier than a two-story raccoon eating a soft pretzel?” Shaak said.

In an effort to change the playground’s reputation, she began regularly cleaning up trash scattered around and started locking the gate at night, until someone changed the locks. She reached out to the Department of Parks and Recreation for help, and discovered the manager of the maintenance in the Riverwards area hadn’t even realized the Webb Street spot was an official city facility.

Parks and Rec has since posted a sign noting the playground’s hours, and has given Shaak and VURT the permits they need to use crowdsourced funds to give the equipment and benches a new coat of paint. As for the mural, since Shaak owns the house, she doesn’t need anyone’s permission. She and VURT are looking to have it painted before the end of September.

“I really believe this mural will help us revitalize the playground,” she said. “It needs help. This area is kind of cut off by Aramingo, the highway and the train tracks. It’s a little triangle of a neighborhood within a neighborhood.”

A communications and events manager for the the Graduate College at Drexel, Shaak is usually on the other side of these things, she said. She volunteers regularly at various nonprofits, including PAWS, and also donates money. But she’s never before started something of her own.

“It’s been inspiring to me and I really want to continue this work,” Shaak said. “I’m not sure how — maybe I’ll team with VURT and help them write grants!”

Danya Henninger spent six years as director at Billy Penn, a startup acquired by public media organization WHYY in 2019.