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Philadelphia picture show

The City of Brotherly Love has more murals than any other US city. But they're more than art – they're community-builders.

By Rebecca L. RhoadesContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2008

City of murals: 'Dream in Flight was created in 2000 by Josh Sarantitis.

Rebecca L. Rhoades

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They rise from vacant lots in rundown neighborhoods, covering the sides of brick row houses, shuttered businesses, and even schools and community buildings, their brilliant designs emerging like wildflowers in a forgotten garden of crumbling cement and rubble.

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In one, a young boy reaches for a bird, its blue wings extending beyond the building's roofline. In another, baseball great Jackie Robinson slides into home, his outstretched hand signifying not only his winning run but his breaking of the color barrier.

They tell stories of hope and redemption, of cultural traditions, of community leaders long gone. But whether it's a portrait of basketball legend Julius "Dr. J" Irving or Keith Haring's whimsical dancing figures, the images all have one thing in common: They tell the story of Philadelphia and the people who live in its poorest neighborhoods.

Philadelphia boasts more than 2,800 indoor and outdoor murals, with another 135 created annually. Next year, the city will celebrate the 25th year of the program that started as an anti-graffiti initiative and has spawned similar programs in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.; and in locations as far away as Paris and Hanoi, Vietnam.

"Murals represent people's stories and struggles," says Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program (MAP), a nonprofit city agency. "Murals are a point frozen in time, when people came together to accomplish something tangible. It's something that's unique in the life of this city."

Since the 1980s, the city has been beset with skyrocketing homicide rates, racial violence, and decaying neighborhoods. For many of those early years, the city also suffered from rampant graffiti, viewed as an outward sign of the city's troubles.

In 1984, Mayor W. Wilson Goode created the Anti-Graffiti Network, of which MAP was a component. To direct the program, he hired Ms. Golden, who had worked for the Los Angeles Citywide Mural Project and felt strongly that Philadelphia's graffiti writers would enjoy creating murals.

"I was taken by their talent," she says. "Here was this interesting group of young people who have been left out of the system, sort of disconnected from the mainstream, but they seemed to have a big love of art. They also had an uncanny knowledge of abstract expressionism."

In the beginning, the murals were small corners of beauty in areas where the only visual stimulation was billboards advertising alcohol and tobacco. What happened next surprised everyone. As soon as a mural grid went up on a building, graffiti would disappear. And community members began to feel a sense of ownership of the images. One measure of the program's success is that in 25 years, only six murals have been defaced.