The big show at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia right now is “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a look at the remarkable journey of the Jewish Supreme Court justice “from trailblazer to pop culture icon.” Across town in West Philadelphia, another kind of Jewish story has been playing out — one that’s arguably as larger-than-life and ambitious as RBG herself, and just as committed to justice.
Early one recent morning, I wandered up Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, a few blocks and a world away from the University of Pennsylvania campus. Tree-lined Victorian streets gave way to a run-down block where men loitered outside a donut shop. Nearby, a pile of rubble was all that remained of an old stone church, demolished to make way for student housing.
Amid this bleak tableau, a riotous tangle of vines in peacock hues climbed across a two-story wall by a vacant lot. Flowers bloomed skyward in purple, turquoise, lime and hibiscus — an artistic expression of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, just where it was sorely needed. I thought of a line in Matt de la Peña’s “Last Stop on Market Street,” a favorite book of my daughter, Zelda: “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt … you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
The mural is “World Tree,” and its Jewish painter is Shira Walinsky, one of Philadelphia’s foremost muralists; her next project is a mural about the 2020 census. “World Tree” is one of more than 4,000 large-scale, outdoor works around the city from Mural Arts, the nation’s largest public art program and the vision of another Jewish Philadelphian — founder and executive director Jane Golden. The program turns 35 this year, and the ubiquitous murals have become a calling card in Philadelphia, outsize scenes that arrest the eye as you turn a corner, transforming a parking lot or a crumbling warehouse into a pop-up gallery.
Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest large city. Whole neighborhoods can resemble an Edward Hopper streetscape — bypassed both by the gentrification that has transformed neighborhoods like University City, where I now live, full of glass towers and hot pot eateries, and the postwar urban renewal that literally ripped apart historic neighborhoods in cities like New York.
Equal parts picturesque and decrepit, row houses linger in senescent limbo, their owners unable or unwilling to repair a sagging porch and fix the chipping paint.
Into these spaces come Mural Arts painters, ready to beautify forgotten but lovely corners and celebrate local heroes like Ed Bradley, the pioneering African-American broadcast journalist whose 2017 portrait gazes from a wall in his West Philly neighborhood.
Some of these artists are world renowned, like Walinsky — who will be leading a screen-printing workshop at Mural Arts’ holiday art fair at Bok Studios on Dec. 21 — and Meg Saligman, the Jewish creator of mesmerizingly baroque, city-defining works like 1999’s “Common Threads.” A few blocks from the Moorish Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on Broad Street, “Common Threads” is an eight-story mural that depicts young, ethnically diverse Philadelphians —real-life teens from a nearby school — trying on the postures of Versailles-era aristocrats.
“Common Threads” is one of Jane Golden’s personal favorites, as she told me when we chatted just after I moved here a few years ago. “It’s so majestic, with eight-foot-tall figures that give kids the dignity they deserve,” she observed.
From its beginnings in 1984, Golden envisioned the mural program as a way to acknowledge the dignity, and talent, of Philadelphia’s urban spectrum — including not only professional and aspiring artists, but also schoolchildren, at-risk teens, the incarcerated and the mentally ill, all of whom contribute to Mural Arts’ grassroots projects. “The Jewish faith is about giving back,” Golden reflected. “I grew up that way, with parents who taught me about the importance of art in helping to heal the world.”
You can learn a lot about Philly by exploring its public artworks — especially if you take the time to learn the stories behind them, and the Jewish social justice mission that animates so much of the city’s cultural life. Mural Arts offers guided tours via foot, Segway, train or trolley, many of which go deep into neighborhoods most visitors never see.
On the face of it, Market Street is one of the less romantic roads in West Philly — wide, trafficy and thoroughly prosaic. But if you look closely, you’ll fall for the romance of one of Golden’s favorite mural projects, Steven Powers’ “Love Letter” series — whimsical mash notes above awnings and on the sides of buildings, with sentiments like “meet me on 52nd, if only for 50 seconds” and “Beautiful…See me like I see you.” It’s not hard to see why, if you love the city, you’d want to show its workaday boulevard a little love too.
The landscape was very different a century ago, when dozens of synagogues, kosher markets and bialy shops dotted West Philadelphia. By the 1980s, there were none; Jewish families had decamped to the Main Line suburbs. I could understand why a friend of my mother’s, who lived in the tony Chestnut Hill section, told me that Philly didn’t feel very Jewish to her.
A few years ago, I stumbled into a sukkah in Clark Park, a green oasis near the university. I saw another in front of the “Rocky” steps at the Museum of Art, just over a Schuylkill River bridge adorned by floral murals. Jewish life has reawakened here, taking root among the artwork that blossoms by vacant lots. You just have to know where to look.