Years ago, I rode the Market/Frankfort Elevated Line into the city for my summer job, when the General Electric Company occupied a building on Walnut Street and 30th Street. So I thought that this tour would remind me of that time, but the city had renovated all the stations, and some of the familiar sites along the route had disappeared. As I looked through my reflection in the window, I wondered about all the passengers stepping on and off the train. Where are they now? Much has happened over those years, and I never could have predicted that I would return to ride the el on The Love Letter Mural Tour. Is my camera out of focus or is it the distortion of tears, as these moments pass away as quickly as those many years. I look to the murals for inspiration.
Over 3,000 murals occupy places in the Philadelphia landscape. The mural program began in 1986 as a anti-graffiti initiative. I’ve written several posts that have referenced some of these murals: Art Imitating Life and Using Art to Create Scenes. A popular project in the mural series is Steve Powers’ A Love Letter For You. Fifty rooftop murals follow the Market Street corridor from 45th to 63rd Streets. In these love letters to his girlfriend, the artist expresses a tender reconciliation, while also showing his appreciation for his neighborhoods in West Philadelphia. In Powers’ own words,
Love Letter is “a letter for one, with meaning for all” and speaks to all residents who have loved and for those who long for a way to express that love to the world around them. He considers the project “my chance to put something on these rooftops that people would care about.”
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and PBS have all featured stories on the Love Letter Tour.
The tour began at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is both a school and a museum, and describes its mission as, “promoting the transformative power of art and art making.” I felt as if I had crash landed there upon seeing this scene in the adjacent alley way, Lenfest Plaza.
Jordan Griska created this sculpture in 2011 from a Navy combat airplane; and as if finding a plane nose-dived into the sidewalk is not surprising enough, inside the cockpit a greenhouse supports a garden.
The museum was equally fascinating, with many interesting displays and exhibits, which was an added a bonus to the start of the tour.
We were fortunate to have as our guide, Harry Kyriakodis, a historian who has written several books on Philadelphia history including Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Harry is a founding member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.
Harry related the history of how and why the murals were created by Powers, who began his career as a graffiti artist and eventually earned a Fulbright scholarship. After handing each tour participant a token for their ride on the Market/Frankford line, we walked to the 15th Street el stop.
Ride with a View
Harry pointed out the murals as we sped through the Philly neighborhoods. We stopped at several of station platforms to study the paintings. One of the first murals we viewed was this one along the side of a brick building:
What makes these series of murals so compelling is that they arise from tattered rooftops, with crumbling chimneys, rotating vent fans, noisy air-conditioners and rusty gutters as companions. The contexts make the murals even more endearing, affirming that love can spring from the most mundane of locations. Despite these rooftop distractions, the messages are clear.
Powers and his team created the murals by painting directly on the walls without the protective cloth that is used on most of the city’s murals, which means that the paint is slowly fading. For now, these messages offer to the el riders the inspiration of love that reconciled and lasted. That’s all I needed to know.