Walnut Hill: Messages on the Wall

Renee Ford, crossing guard at 46th and Market Streets


Throughout Philadelphia, murals brighten up neighborhoods and beautify industrial areas. However, for the residents of Walnut Hill the “writing on the wall” sometimes sends a controversial and confusing message to community members. On the 4800 block of Market Street, on the side of the first African-American nightclub in the area, a mural stains the walls saying “For What I Want I Can Wait… I’ll Wait 4,800 Years if I Have To!”

“I think one of the biggest things is communication,” said Renee Ford, a member of the Walnut Hill Street Team as well as a crossing guard at 46th and Market streets. “I think people just want to know what it means, does it mean we will wait for love? What are we waiting for? Is it a positive thing, is it a negative thing?”

Delancy Austin

The mural at 48th and Market streets is not the only one that has caused a mountain of confusions. From 48th all the way down to 63rd murals stretch across Market with saying like: “Islam is Peace,” “It’s Ours to Take We Share Defeats,” and “For You I Got Daycare Money and Carfare Honey For Now On.”

Residents of Walnut Hill were confused by these messages, unsure of what they were referring to and what services they provided the community.

However, when Steve Powers, the murals’ artist, began the project the message was very clear. Funded by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Powers began working the “Love Letter Project,” a series of murals that are loosely based on the love stories of people Powers actually knows. The murals were painted along Market Street so they could be viewed by riders of the elevated train line that runs through the neighborhood.

In November 2009, a community meeting was held with Steve Powers and manager of the Love Letter project, Brian Campbell. Concerned community members were worried and offended about the implications of the mysterious messages, stating that the 48th Street mural led some to believe that it was a bitter reminder of the African-American slavery struggle that took 400 years to overcome.

Renee Ford, crossing guard at 46th and Market Streets

“We were very surprised by their reaction,” confessed Campbell. “It never occurred to us that the meaning could be so misconstrued. I don’t recall how it made me feel, other than confounded.”

Campbell added that there were community meetings held in place before the project started to explain goals and get community feed back. During this particular reaction meeting, Campbell noted that while some residents saw the mural as a prejudice slurs. A lot of people countered that it did not even cross their minds. He even mentioned Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who was not at the meeting in an official capacity, brought about the topic of using art to spur intellectual dialogue.

Many reactions from the people who walk by and see it daily are positive. Delancy Austin had an emotional connection to the message he got from the mural. He says it reminds him of God and his daughter. “God is going to wait on me because I am a recovering addict,” Austin said. “4,800 years is like an infinity.” Austin saw the numbers as a metaphor for “I will wait a lifetime, if I have to.”

Some people see the mural as an optimistic addition to the neighborhood. Ryan Mason sees himself as an optimistic person. “I see it as patience,” Mason said, “Go for whatever goal you want,” and “be patient.”

Lora Magaldi has a semi-popular photo blog at www.theurbanity.com. She sees the mural as an artistic asset to the neighborhood. Magaldi walks by the mural almost every day. “I love everything about it, the font, the color and how the color blends in with the sky and the ‘El.’” The way Magaldi thought about what was the message was simple, “If I really want something, I can wait.”

A handyman for a nightclub, Mike Alexander mused, “It is what it is.” He said that the mural had been an “improvement to the building.” The owner of the nightclub, Patrick Zimba, said the message to was universal and can apply to anything or anyone.

Lora Magaldi, local blogger

At the meeting, Campbell recalled discussions about how text should be added to direct viewers to the Web site that was being created at the time to explain the project fully, which everyone seemed to agree that this was a good solution.

“It never occurred to us that people would be offended by any of the murals in Love Letter,” said Campbell, “simply by virtue of the fact that they are so simple in their design and in their language.”

Ford and Walnut Hill Street Team Manager Lorna Peterson both expressed the desire to see more murals commemorating key community individuals whom they have lost in the past. After her nephew was murdered, Ford asked for a mural to be erected in his honor at a local playground that he was very active in. After many promises, Ford claimed that the mural did not go up, and being so disheartened, she never pressed the issues she was concerned for regarding the murals.

“As far as I know,” said Peterson, “there will be talks again and there is going to be community expressions. We are going to get some changes, although nothing is written in stone, we still would like to see come changes happen because we are still not satisfied.”

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