From needle-filled lot to colorful community garden, a North Philly school is transformed

Neighbors said the Fairhill space “was like a cemetery” before the Mural Arts project came in.

Agnes Ockovic stands next to a 20-foot tomato, based on one in her own recipe book.

Agnes Ockovic stands next to a 20-foot tomato, based on one in her own recipe book.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The Puerto Rican recipes passed down through generations of Agnes Ockovic’s family, usually kept safe inside a small red notebook, are now also displayed about 500 times their original size on the side of a local elementary school.

Ockovic, a 58-year-old Fairhill resident, provided her drawings as inspiration for the latest project in Mural Arts Restored Spaces program that turned the under-used back courtyard of William Cramp Elementary School into a colorful community garden.

Another neighbor, Leidy Burgos, drew by hand some of the figures that would come to be painted in giant-size on the building at at Ontario and Mascher streets, contributing to what she said was an empowering transformation.

“It was like a cemetery,” said Burgos, 34. “It was desolate. It was dead. It was scary. Nobody wanted to come back here.”

Leidy Burgos and the wall she designed to symbolize healing from domestic violence

Leidy Burgos and the wall she designed to symbolize healing from domestic violence

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

To beautify the space, artist Marion Wilson set up shop in a boys locker room inside the elementary school as a studio for three years. The space worked out surprisingly well, she said: after some light scrubbing the smell was mostly gone.

When Wilson adopted the “Uprooted/rerooted” project in 2016, she decided to embed herself in the community. She worked out the makeshift studio and hired a team of five neighbors to help.

“I’ve never done something at that scale,” Wilson told Billy Penn. “I’ve done big projects. I knew how to make big paintings, but I never did a 10,000-square-foot mural.”

Before the huge painting was installed, the school’s concrete lot was littered with needles, according to neighbor Burgos, who said the brown walls of the school building made the courtyard feel more like a punishment than a place for kids to have fun.

“It felt like a prison,” she said. “Now it’s a more welcoming area for a lot of the kids and parents who attend here, and for the community members who live in the surrounding area.”

The rebranded building gets its official reveal on Wednesday morning — and the change is monumental.

Ockovic's recipe book

Ockovic's recipe book

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The K-5 institution is now blanketed on all four exterior walls by vibrant murals. Growth is the common thread through the various artworks. Painted all over are flowers, fruits and veggies and even tiny plant cells as seen under the lens of a microscope. Many of the motifs were first sketched by neighbors, and even students.

All the artists were compensated for their time — paid hourly via Visa gift cards. And those who want to stay involved can keep being paid by the Philadelphia Orchard Project to tend to the garden.

“It gave us a huge voice in what our community needed,” said Burgos, whose 12-year-old son is a Cramp alum. “It paid off. It definitely paid off.”

In the new community garden out back, neighbors can come by and pick produce and herbs, or just kick back and relax. Burgos said the eggplant and the raspberry plants are the biggest hits — but she likes to make her own tea out of the mint.

A yellow raspberry that sprouted in the Cramp elementary school garden

A yellow raspberry that sprouted in the Cramp elementary school garden

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The Fairhill native is grateful to have been involved. She attended the now-closed Art Institute of Philadelphia for two years before her multiple sclerosis flared up so badly in 2006 that she had to drop out. This project reintroduced her to an old passion.

She’s personally responsible for the painting of a tall purple flower on one of the back walls. It’s a representation, she said, of recovery: she and her son survived domestic violence.

“It meant so much to us,” Burgos said. “It gave us something to look forward to aside from our daily struggles, and it [brought] us together.”

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