Can colorful neighborhoods create a canvas of hope? Philly Painting uses collaborative art to catalyze renewal, redemption, and hope in a neglected corridor
In 2012, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, a pair of Dutch-born artists known as Haas and Hahn, turned the facades of 50 buildings in a crime-ridden section of North Philadelphia into a giant public artwork. Known for their rainbow-colored murals spanning entire neighborhoods in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, they were invited by the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program to lead an arts-based approach for revitalizing and re-energizing one of Philadelphia’s oldest commercial corridors.
Over the course of several months, Haas and Hahn painted a dramatic design of woven color and pattern across dilapidated facades and boarded-up windows along three blocks at the intersection of Lehigh Avenue in an area called Germantown. Their work, known as Philly Painting, visually unifies the blighted corridor, symbolically “weaving” together a diverse array of storefronts into a unified experience.
Philly Painting is the most ambitious and complex project the Mural Arts Program has undertaken in its 30-year history. Founded in 1984, the Mural Arts Program is a public/private partnership encompassing both a city agency and a nonprofit that creates collaborative art to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions. And this spirit of collaboration was at the heart of Haas and Hahn’s ‘urban experiment.’
To start their project, the artists took up residency in the neighborhood and began to capture images of the corridor. They developed a color palette based on patterns of recurring primary and secondary hues that reflected the neighborhood’s rich character and then reshaped and scaled these “native” color swatches to transcend the architecture of the individual buildings. Each property owner was invited to select one of 35 possible palettes and test them out on a scale model of buildings covered with colored tape before the painting began.
Establishing buy-in was admittedly one of the hardest aspects of the project. Haas and Hahn quickly learned the streets of Philadelphia posed even more difficult challenges than the streets of the favelas. “In Brazil, you would knock on a door, shake hands with the resident, and you’d be good to go,” Urhahn said. In Philadelphia, just finding the owners of the buildings - many are absentee landlords with no other ties to the neighborhood - was a struggle.
None of this would have been possible without the collective effort of strong civic partners. Essential to the project’s success was Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, which recognized the its potential to serve as catalyst for positive change and commercial renewal. Other partners, such as the Philadelphia Planning Commission, Interface Studio, The Village of Arts and Humanities, and NET Neighborhood Enrichment and Transformation CDC helped get landlords, shopkeepers, residents, developers, community organizations – essentially everyone in the neighborhood on board to pull off the project.
Finding such comprehensive buy-in and support from the community was perhaps the most astounding and important feat of the project. Haas and Hahn commissioned local businesses in the production process and employed crews of young men and women from the neighborhood to paint, which enticed more and more property owners to join in the effort. Many did not do it for a new coat of paint. Urhahn said they would often stop the pair and say, “Thank you for giving so many of the brothers work.”
While the project’s short-term goal was to visually transform a place that had been overtaken by blight and disinvestment, Haas and Hahn did not paint the mural as an end in and of itself. The long-term goal is to use visual transformation as a way to combat the underlying problems that caused the blight in the first place.
Haas and Hahn, along with their city partners believe strongly that the connections and relationships that were created or repaired during the project will lead to more investments - not just financial - in this neighborhood. As Judie Gilmore of the Philadelphia Mural Arts program said, Public officials will begin to see potential, not problems. Residents will no longer wait around for improvements, but lead them. Merchants will choose to invest in their businesses. Other partners in the city will want to work here.
Though hard to measure but equally valuable, Philly Painting undoubtedly created an intangible social impact. Haas and Hahn used art to stitch back together a sense of social cohesion, collective hope and embodied optimism. They provided an opening to redeem a public sphere and catalyze a neighborhood out of chronic disenfranchisement. Perhaps their experiment will offer new ideas for how to reshape the post-modern American city and create lasting vibrancy in our neighborhoods.