One of the biggest threats to Philly murals? New construction

Mural Arts estimates around three artworks a year are covered up by development.

The 'Dream in Flight' mural at Point Breeze Avenue and Dickinson Street

The 'Dream in Flight' mural at Point Breeze Avenue and Dickinson Street

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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In Point Breeze, the “Dream in Flight” mural is a symbol.

“It represents people coming together,” said Alfred Rodgers, 53, who owns Goodman’s clothing store on Point Breeze Avenue near Dickinson, about a hundred feet away. Commissioned by Mural Arts, the image of a young boy with a dove in his outstretched hand was painted by community artist Josh Sarantitis in 2000.

When the mural is gone, Rodgers will miss it dearly. And there’s no doubt it will soon be gone.

That’s evidenced by common sight in this rapidly developing city: a lot blocked off by fencing and a zoning permit, meant to inform residents that a new structure will soon rise in its place.

Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden estimates around three murals per year are covered up by development. The problem isn’t new — but it’s only gotten worse as the pace of construction has spiked.

“We do our work against a backdrop of the city evolving,” Golden told Billy Penn. “Cities are fluid and dynamic and always moving. Nothing stays the same.”

A mural titled 'In Living Memory: Those of Us Alive' has been covered up by apartments at 15th and Berks streets

A mural titled 'In Living Memory: Those of Us Alive' has been covered up by apartments at 15th and Berks streets

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

For Rodgers, this feels like more of the same: New development goes on around him constantly, regardless of how he and his neighbors feel about it.

“Whenever we say how we feel, it’s not going to make a difference,” Rodgers said. “They already got the license and everything. It’s like words written on water.”

But zoning permits don’t lie, and developers already dug a hole where the new property is set to be built. Golden has seen this play out multiple times. “What I’ve noticed time and time again is that developers often…will build over or tear down a public art project without telling anyone,” she said. “It leaves the community upset.”

In a city rife with development, it’s Golden’s responsibility to decide how to move forward.

Can she save the murals, or should she let them go?

‘The autobiography of our city’

“Dream in Flight” is far from the only mural for which new construction is the ultimate demise.

Back in 2014, the John Coltrane mural at 32nd and Diamond got the wrecking ball to make room for an apartment complex. A year later, Temple University knocked down William Penn High School to replace it with athletic fields. Included in the demolition was the “Street of Dreams” mural painted on the side of the school building by artist Cliff Eubanks.

Those are just a couple popular examples. Every year, Mural Arts projects are covered up in favor of new construction.

For the murals that encounter these new developments, their ultimate fates can vary.

Although the John Coltrane mural at 32nd and Diamond was covered up, the developer helped rectify the situation. After receiving backlash from the community, the Pennrose Company made a significant contribution to Mural Arts so it could repaint a Coltrane mural somewhere else.

The new one stands at 29th and Diamond, overlooking the same Strawberry Mansion neighborhood as its first iteration.

The updated John Coltrane mural at 29th and Diamond

The updated John Coltrane mural at 29th and Diamond

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“We don’t want to stand in the way of economic development,” Golden insisted. “But these pieces of public art are truly the autobiography of our city, holding up a mirror to every single community in Philadelphia and saying, ‘Your life matters.'”

When Golden catches wind of new development around a mural, she tries to track down the developer and negotiate a solution.

Best case scenario: she can convince them to halt development — but that’s unlikely. Second best: she gets them to make a contribution to paint a replace mural. Meanwhile, she’ll document the existing one to preserve its memory.

Unfortunately, there are instances when Mural Arts doesn’t find out about development in time. Under those circumstances, murals are lost forever.

A mural commemorating famous African American printmaker Dox Trash used to be on display at 16th and Girard, now half-covered by a new apartment complex

A mural commemorating famous African American printmaker Dox Trash used to be on display at 16th and Girard, now half-covered by a new apartment complex

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

“When a mural goes away, it’s startling,” Golden said. “People notice it and miss it.”

That’s the case now, in Point Breeze. Indeed, community members seem disappointed by the impending loss of the “Dream in Flight” mural. And for some, it wouldn’t make a difference whether it were repainted elsewhere — the damage is already done.

“It would be a waste of time,” Rodgers said. “Too little, too late.”