What happened to Mural Arts’ Kensington Storefront?
On a sunny fall afternoon, a vacant lot on East Stella Street in Kensington abruptly transformed from a dusty, dilapidated void in the landscape into a bustling arts hub.
In a shady corner, Trapeta Mayson, the city’s poet laureate, hosted a drop-in poetry workshop, inviting children to play with word tiles and adults to experiment with free verse. Nearby, children and adults seated at a long table painted colorful abstractions. The neighbors, seeing the activity, strolled, lingered on their steps or, perhaps inspired by the activity of the neighborhood, began to sweep the sidewalks.
Then, before nightfall, everything was gone.
It was one of dozens of short-lived, modest-scale yet ambitious events that sprouted around Kensington as part of a Mural Arts Philadelphia effort to flood the neighborhood with public art projects large and small. . Called the Kensington Wellness Initiative, it represents a revamp of a bold – and at times controversial – bet by that wall art that an ‘art showcase’ on Kensington Avenue could serve addicts through a harm reduction model while creating a cultural center for the whole community.
This storefront, modeled after a thriving arts center the organization runs in south Philadelphia, was closed last year – first because of the pandemic, then for good after a city inspector shut down. discovered that it lacked proper zoning. It was a special turn of events for a city-funded operation launched in 2017 in the presence of the city director general, the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities (DBHIDS) and a member of the city council of the district.
Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said she has decided not to tackle the zoning issue.
Even though the storefront attracted around a thousand visitors each month for art classes, support groups, and poetry readings, and served much more as a Code Blue warming center during cold spells, it did make it reckons that many residents of the neighborhood did not feel comfortable going there. Others, already engaged in a heated debate over the idea of a supervised injection site in the neighborhood, saw his work as a piece with the needle exchange and naloxone giveaways elsewhere on Kensington Avenue.
“It happened at a time when Kensington was reaching its breaking point, with people on the streets and in use, and people with very different ideas about where Kensington should go and who is getting support.” Golden said.
Bill McKinney, a longtime McPherson Square area resident and head of New Kensington Community Development Corp., said the Code Blue periods were a turning point. His organization had been involved in the storefront, but withdrew after its conversion into a warming center. “Our staff are not equipped or trained to work with these populations,” McKinney said.
He compared the situation to that in McPherson Square, which many residents and families are now avoiding due to open drug use: a hollow promise of shared space. And, like the daily needle cleaning at McPherson and the portable toilets put in place in response to the latest hepatitis A outbreak, he said it seemed like one more band-aid for the self-inflicted wounds the city was making. is inflicted on Kensington by allowing its drug markets to flourish.
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“What the Kensington people were saying was, ‘Not yet. You can’t impose something on the community anymore, ”McKinney said.
For months, Mural Arts wondered how to move forward: fight to reopen the storefront or move it away from the chaos of Kensington Avenue. Ultimately, they chose a third option: “All of Kensington has been traumatized,” Golden said. “So can we expand our work to reach more people? “
(DBHIDS, who had been a partner in the storefront, declined an interview request and instead provided a statement that the storefront had not closed but simply moved, referring to a wall art office in the community center of Visitation. This space, however, is not Open to the public.)
This more diffuse approach, in the spirit of harm reduction, aims to meet people literally where they are. This means pop-up events in wasteland, plans for a mobile mural, and workshops run in collaboration with senior centers, libraries, public health organizations and civic groups. A staff member even takes his guitar to McPherson Square for impromptu music therapy sessions with anyone walking around.
There are also over 20 new murals completed or in progress. One, which will come to life on December 15 on Kensington Avenue, will be a line of poetry rendered in neon. It’s crowdsourced and composed by Mayson, who said she tries to distill “the authentic voice of a community” into a single 60-character line.
READ MORE: Philly frontline workers share their experiences with drug treatment during pandemic
In many of its projects, Mural Arts now tries to let the community lead. To this end, the organization has developed a board game that aims to help people identify their strengths and set priorities. He has also launched a number of micro-grant funds to help people bring their creative ideas to life.
A resident, Milagros Aquino Matos, organized the pop-up event in Stella Street through a mural art program called Lots & Lots of Love. Matos, who was trained as a ‘community connector’ by the non-profit organization HACE, is already a leader in her neighborhood, organizing weekly food distributions, distributing planters and helping older residents and illiterates overcome bureaucratic obstacles.
Now, she said, “people look to me for help and give weight to my suggestions.” She hopes to use her new weight and the goodwill of the pop-up to transform the vacant lot into a permanent play space and garden – an anchor to stabilize a block that is often beset by the fallout of any. activity (or law enforcement response) takes place in Hope Park, just around the corner.
Many of the micro-grant projects proposed by residents are not ambitious, but rather address fundamental issues of quality of life. Some are community cleanups, albeit dressed up with a DJ, gifts from recycling bins, or landscaping from native plants. A clean-up organizer collected oral histories from Ross Park, framing the grunt work in the narrative.
Shari Hersh, who heads the environmental justice arm of Mural Arts, said the modest scale of these projects should not be confused with a lack of vision. Its long-term goal is to empower residents to stand up for themselves and tackle root causes, like the city’s failure to license carriers and regulate landfills.
“These are systemic issues, and investing in people so that we can reach the level of care in a systemic way is really important,” she said. “There is a role for art because we go through the door of imagination and connection. “
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the association runs programs for homeless people or drug addicts. They also started a daytime work program, paying people facing barriers in the formal job market $ 50 for three-hour shifts by painting a 250-foot-long mural in an underpass. The design suggests a “garden of rare and hardy plants”, rendered slightly differently by each painter. In this way, lead artist Mat Tomezsko said: “There is a bit of empowerment. “
READ MORE: Mural Arts launched a program to put the homeless to work. Here is what happened.
Although Color Me Back shifts are awarded by online lottery, workers sometimes come from a small camp nestled in the neighborhood. During a recent visit, city workers were posting signs warning of an impending “day of duty” during which the sidewalk would be cleared of tents and debris.
Kevin McCloskey, a Kensington resident who started daytime work with Mural Arts and was recently hired for a more permanent position, said he viewed the mural as a beacon. “I think it’s going to make a difference here. I hope so. Look at all the participants we have.
For those who believed in the Storefront, however, something is missing.
Roz Pichardo, who works with the nonprofit Harm Reduction Prevention Point, worked at Storefront. But she also spent free time there, relaxing at the end of a stressful day. “It was the only place people could go to not only receive services, but also a hot cup of coffee or connections with DBHIDS.”
She and others canceled more than 400 overdoses while working there, she said. “That’s 400 lives saved because Storefront existed. Now what do people do when they have nowhere to look for Narcan? It’s probably different now for people who live in Kensington and Somerset.
Now she runs art and music workshops on the wasteland near Prevention Point, some of them in collaboration with Mural Arts.
“We tried to replace it with stuff,” she said. “I’m just trying to find a way for people to express their frustrations, to express themselves.”