Nelly Maldanado often stands outside of his clothing store on the 2600 block of Germantown Avenue and reminisces about a time not long ago when businesses up and down the corridor flourished.
Although Maldonado’s store, M.J Apparel, has seen steady business over the years, the corridor as a whole has fallen on hard times. Abandoned buildings, litter, crime and boarded-up windows are just a few of the problems that plague the commercial strip today. But with the help of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Village of Arts and Humanities, local residents and other organizations, there has been a joint effort to transform the historic corridor through art.
For a four-block stretch between Huntingdon Street and Somerset Street nearly 50 storefronts lie covered with bright blocks of color. The intricate paintings are an initiative of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program that is being overseen by Dutch artists Jeroen-Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, also known as Haas & Hahn. The eight-month-long project, titled Philly Painting, aims to transform the commercial strip through the vibrant artworks in an effort to boost business and energize the community.
However, residents have mixed feelings concerning the project and whether it will ultimately be able to rejuvenate the once-thriving corridor. “You have to give them a lot of credit for what they’re doing,” said Maldanado. “Hopefully, it will help attract more people to street.”
Blue-and-white blocks cover Maldanado’s store, which is located at 2632 Germantown Ave. Every morning when Maldanado opens for business he usually finds bottles, cans, candy wrappers and other types of litter on the street outside of his store. He takes it upon himself to keep the area clean by sweeping in front of his store and other nearby stores. Over the years, Maldanado has seen many store owners lose interest in maintaining the strip.
“People are just leaving things as is,” said Maldanado. “When that happens then things start going backwards. We need to be going forward.”
Maldanado said that he hopes that the paintings are just the beginning of other improvements made to the strip such as benches for people to sit, additional trash cans and the planting of trees.
“When people see the paintings and hopefully the benches and plants they’re going to see that Germantown Avenue is changing,” said Maldanado. “They’re going to tell their friends and they’re going to tell their friends. It’s just all about bringing more attention.”
Sharon Lee also owns a clothing store on the 2400 block. Born and raised in Korea, Lee moved to Philadelphia in 1974. Red-and-yellow blocks cover Lee’s store, but she said that she isn’t very fond of the paintings.
“It’s too busy for me,” said Lee. “They used too many colors and it’s not clean cut. They could have made it look more elegant if you ask me.”
Lee said she remembers when Germantown Avenue used to be crowded with people who were shoulder to shoulder as they shopped. Lee said that business on the corridor began to start going downhill in the 1990s and pointed to the economy as one of the main reasons. With more options for people to shop and residents affected by the rough economy, Lee said that she doesn’t have high hopes that the project will help revive the strip.
“No matter how nice the paintings may look if you don’t have the money then you’re not going to come here to shop,” Lee said. “I hope it can recover and go back to what it used to be but I just don’t see it happening.”
Located at 2544 Germantown Ave., the Village of Arts and Humanities is a community-based organization devoted to neighborhood revival through the arts. Brenda Taylor, an administrative manager at the Village of Arts and Humanities, said that the paintings should have an immense impact on the children who are part of the organization.
“We have a lot of Spanish and Mexican kids here at the village, so I’m sure that they’ll definitely take a liking to the paintings,” said Taylor.
Taylor, who was worked at the Village of Arts and Humanities since 1997, was raised in Fairhill. She said that it brings her joy to see her neighborhood being transformed right in front of her eyes.
“A lot of the paintings bring back memories of my childhood,” said Taylor. “Every time I step off the bus and look down the block I’m amazed at how good it looks. It just really helps brighten up the avenue.”
Alex Gilliam is the founder of Public Workshop, an organization that creates opportunities for young people to get involved with the design of neighborhood projects. Gilliam has worked alongside the Village of Arts and Humanities and the Mural Arts Program over the course of the project. He said that he believes the contributors to the project did the best job that they could.
“The paintings are going to be controversial any way you slice it partially because it’s taking over someone else’s property,” said Gilliam. “It’s always tricky, but I think they did the best that they could to make it as grassroots and community based as possible. I think it’s awesome.”
For another story on the project, see this story at http://philadelphianeighborhoods.com/2012/12/05/fairhill-dutch-artists-inspire-philly-painting-project/