When British royalty recently came to the city, they made a special stop to visit a little girl in the rough-and-tumble Mantua neighborhood.
Actually, the girl is not so little: She's about three stories tall. Painted on the side of a building, her image is the main element in "Reading: A Journey" _ one of 2,700 murals created by the city's Mural Arts Program.
Now in its 23rd year, the program has populated Philadelphia with a cast of characters from Frank Rizzo to Frank Sinatra to Frankie Avalon, and turned barren walls into colorful landscapes and inspirational images.
It has also given residents of some of the city's tougher neighborhoods a sense of pride and, perhaps, a promise of better things to come.
"I think what the murals do, it's like a tipping point," said program director Jane Golden. "People see it as a sign that things can change, that someone cares. Once momentum starts to happen, people start to really believe in the neighborhood."
The program began in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. It broke out on its own in 1996 and now receives about $4.7 million in annual funding from city, state and private sources.
The "Reading" mural, completed in 2005, depicts a young girl in a pink shirt and jeans reading a book, out of which fly smaller images such as butterflies, fish and birds.
It could be any girl, but the model was Nadirrah Blackson, now 7, whose grandmother Linda Tolbert owns the building on which it was painted. Tolbert hopes that a recent visit from Prince Charles and his wife Camilla will give the mural program a higher profile and enable it to expand.
"We need that in the city," said Tolbert. "I think it should go worldwide."
Program artists work with college students, at-risk youth, community members and others to create about 150 indoor and outdoor murals each year, Golden said. But even that is not enough to keep up with the number of neighborhood requests _ 2,000 people are on a waiting list, she said.
Murals can be found in neighborhoods of all income levels. Scattered through the middle-class Queen Village/Bella Vista area is a four-mural series depicting the seasons; former mayor Frank Rizzo is in the heart of the Italian Market; and numerous murals can be found downtown.
The projects are created through a number of methods and use materials including paint, parachute cloth, mosaic tiles and stained glass.
Parachute cloth was first used in Philadelphia for a multistory image of basketball legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving. The fabric, the smoothness of which allows for finer details, is attached to a wall with acrylic gel.
James Helman, an activist in the city's Grays Ferry section, is a big fan of his neighborhood's mural titled "Peace Wall." Created in a community with a long history of racial tension, the image shows hands of all different skin tones reaching into the center of a circle.
Neighbors who normally might not have spoken to each other came together for the mural project, Helman said, and some had their actual hands represented in the mural.
The project was the catalyst for better relations that continue to this day, he said.
"At first, I was skeptical about the mural. It turned out to be an icon. We actually did come together," said Helman. "It wasn't a magic wand, but it reminded people of what was possible."
Sheree Precious Washington, who lives a block from the "Reading" mural, said the projects "beautify the community and give the kids something positive to do."
But Washington, 42, noted that the troubled area is still plagued with drugs. The neighborhood also saw about a half-dozen homicides last year.
Not far from the "Reading" mural is another jewel of the program, "Holding Grandmother's Quilt."
Comprising two walls facing each other, the mural on one side depicts a grandmother sitting in her chair, her lap covered by the enormous quilt on which she is working; opposite her, three grandchildren admiringly hold up the other end of the quilt. In between is a small park, which Golden said was once a lot filled with trash, tires and appliances, sandwiched between walls of graffiti.
Still, the mural depicting the grandchildren belongs to an abandoned home, with some windows boarded up and others simply missing, their tangled blinds dangling in the wind.
Donald Gensler, who designed that mural and more than a dozen others, remains enthusiastic. It speaks volumes, he said, that the community has maintained the park since the mural's completion in 2004, even if the neighborhood's overall socioeconomic picture remains bleak.
"It's not going to change the realities of people's day-to-day situation unless they really kind of want to change things for themselves," Gensler said. "(But) it begins that process."
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Source: AP Features