Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Posts tagged ‘West Philadelphia’

New Freedom African-American Historic District Tour

New Freedom African-American Historic District Tour

IMG_2954Philadelphia Hiking Meetup Group sponsored a tour of West Philadelphia that focused on African-American historic sites. The organizer, Jed McKee, plans hikes that are transit friendly and is one of the reasons I selected this walk. The tour began at 30th Street Station, which is a hub of the rail lines, including Amtrak and Septa, that go in and out of Philadelphia.

Our group met under the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial, a 39-foot monument commemorating the Pennsylvania Railroad employees who died in World War II. The bronze sculpture, Angel of the Resurrection, represents Michael the Archangel raising up a dead soldier out of the “flames of war.” Assistant Organizer, Scott Maits, our guide and local historian, began his commentary with a history of the station and of early Philadelphia.

As Scott led us west along Market Street, crossing under the freight train tracks, he told us the story of Frances Harper, who protested segregation on the trolleys in 1858.  Frances refused to give up her seat or ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car. Frances, an abolitionist, was also a writer and poet, author of the poem, “Bury Me In A Free Land,”

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

We crossed through the campus of Drexel University into the area known as Black Bottom, a predominantly African-American community that was almost completely destroyed in the 1960s for “urban renewal.” Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, and Presbyterian Hospital worked together to acquire properties for eventual demolition.

Kitchen Sink Sculpture

Kitchen Sink Sculpture

Scott gave us an opportunity to view the facilities of the Community Education Center, that once housed the Quaker Friends School and Meetinghouse, rebuilt at the turn of the 20th century. Local community members founded the CEC “to promote shared experiences and nurture fellowship among its varied neighborhoods across cultural and economic differences.”  The Center supports local community art programs, especially dance and performance.


The neighborhood varied from grand mansions to row homes.

Dupree Studios just won their long battle with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA); the agency has ended condemnation proceedings to acquire the property by eminent domain.


We walked along Lancaster Avenue, originally called the Lincoln Highway, finding these wonderful moments along the way.

Hall Rennovation

Lovely old building needing funding to restore to former glory,


Inspection Station with mural and mosaics.

Included this photograph of CBM Tires because I like old gas stations!


Bicycle Shop

Bicycle Shop with clever display of wheels and gears. Can’t find anything like this at the mall.

Belmont Mural

Welcome to Belmont Mural

Lava Space Mural

Murals on Lancaster Avenue/Lava Zone Mural

Martin Luther King Mural

40th Street and Lancaster Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. mural. Mural recreates “Freedom Now” Rally held on August 3, 1965, during the Civil Rights movement.

Our last stop was at the intersection of Lancaster Avenue, 42nd Street, and Brown Street, near the New Africa Center Muslim-American Museum, before heading back to 30th Street via Number 10 trolley.

IMG_2982The contrasts on Lancaster Avenue are striking: blighted stretches of store fronts and sidewalks in desperate need of cleaning juxtapose with the creative art displays, both public and private. Derelict buildings stand next to colorful sidewalk mosaics. After years of economic decline, revitalizing the neighborhood is a challenging task: to create a prosperous commercial corridor while preserving and encouraging a mixed-income community.

Extended thanks to Jed McKee and Scott Maits for giving our Meet Up group an opportunity to visit and to learn about the history of this important Philadelphia neighborhood.

First West Philly Square Dance

Advertised as “West Philly Old-Time Square Dancing,” the organizers can be congratulated on the success of their very first dance. Folks poured into the room ready to embark on a dance experience that was new to many of the participants.  A bit of chaos to start, but everyone was in great spirits as the caller selected fun dances. The band played energetic music, folks laughing and smiling through their steps.

In the video, “heal an’ toe, heal an’ toe and slide . . . clap, swing  . . . on to the next.”  Great way to dance everyone in the room!

Next dance, February 26.
St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton Village
3916 Locust Walk





Love’s Legacy on the Elevated Line, Mural Arts Tour, Philadelphia

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.

IMG_2108We 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



One percent of the construction cost of the station had to be spent on an artistic representation.

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:

I had a dream

Ah, dare to dream

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.


Standing on the platform


A wish


Seems so


That would be amazing

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.

Meandering Photo Walk, the Streets of West Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Photo League sponsored a walk, “Meandering with Mike, West Philly Edition,” and I welcomed this opportunity to add to my other West Philly posts:

A Corner in West Mt. Airy
Joy of Books: Bindlestiff in West Philly
Art Imitating Life


Stepped off the trolley at 43rd Street, which intersects Clark Park, and on Saturday mornings the farmers’ market brings in fresh produce and other products into West Philly. I purchased a bar of lavender soap, which gave my bag a sweet fragrance every time I opened it.


We met our leader, Mike Klusek, and fellow photographers at the Green Line Cafe, a neighborhood coffee shop at 43rd and Baltimore Avenue. After bulking up with iced coffee before we began our walk on a very warm summer’s day, we strolled along Baltimore and Springfield Avenues into the Squirrel Hill section, just west of Clark Park.

Painted Ladies

The trolley line, constructed in the late 19th century, brought development to the area, and the three-story, two-unit, Queen Anne style Victorian homes characterized many of the neighborhoods. Architectural features, such as gables, dormers, oriels and porches, and painted decorations on the homes give each their unique character. A conical tent, covered with slate shingles, topped the towers and turrets. A photographer could spend a good deal of time taking pictures of the various elements. As an artist, I especially liked the various color schemes and flourishes above the doorways. No wonder these houses have been titled the painted ladies of American architecture.

We found other architectural styles. Along the street, a series of brick row homes sported a simpler style, and a magnificent stone building, called “The Castle” wrapped around the corner of Springfield and 46th Street.

The temperature climbed to 92 degrees, but a light breeze gave some relief from the heat. Trees shaded the sidewalks, and the colorful crepe myrtles bloomed their festive pinks and purples. Philadelphia calls itself “The City of Arborly Love” and provides a free tree to residents. Residents tend gardens along the front porches giving the passerby a visual delight of color.


City of Murals

In addition to being a city of trees, Philadelphia is home to more than 3,600 murals. We passed several on our stroll, including this view out a window.

Window Mural

Many windows and doors caught out attention . . . including this one with the lacy curtains.

Lacy Curtains

Community Churches

The Community of Squirrel Hill have pulled together to save the church on the corner of 47th and Kingsessing. The church was just a few days from being demolished when local residents stepped in to prevent the church’s demolition. Designed by the architect, Frank Furness, the church had fallen into disrepair but now is under construction to become two schools.


Several blocks from this structure, stands one of the most important landmarks in the area, Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church. Built in 1907 and renovated in 1968, its crowning glory is the tiled Byzantine dome. As I walked into the church a duet practiced at the organ, preparing for a wedding later that afternoon. With the music adding to the experience, a short video captures scenes from the church.

Duet: Lauren Gigliotti and Lou Becht

Pause and Play

We returned to Baltimore Avenue, passing through Cedar Park, pausing to take refreshment at Dock Street and to compare our photo notes.

Dock Street Restaurant

Later in the evening, I returned to Clark Park for their 10th anniversary of Shakespeare productions.The community gathered for the performance of The Winder’s Tale. 

Winter's Tale

The Squirrel Hill neighborhood is a jewel in the West Philadelphia crown. A visitor is treated to architecture that has survived over a hundred years requiring the residents to spend time and money on maintaining the ornate decorative flourishes on these grand Victorian homes and gardens. These efforts preserve the history of the neighborhood and the common good of the community, while giving the wandering photographer the chance to capture these moments.

Art Imitating Life

on 47th and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The city of Philadelphia displays the largest collection of public murals in the country. One of the 2,000 murals rests on the wall outside of the A-Space, a collectively run anarchist community center and art gallery. Titled The Heart of Baltimore Avenue, the muralist, David Ginn, depicts West Philly neighbors working together.

Passing by on May Day 2013, caught this moment . . . which stands as a tribute to all workers who make our cities great.

Life Imitating Art

Joy of Books: Bindlestiff Books in West Philly

Recently this video, Joy of Books, went viral on the Internet. The store, Type, in Toronto (883 Queen Street West) recently underwent a renovation; the owners, with some help from their friends, animated the shelves in this enchanting video.

Type  reminded me of the time, seven years ago, when I helped to renovate and startup a bookstore in West Philadelphia, Bindlestiff Books, along with Walt, Christine, John, Bill and Alexis.

This video shows the IWW National Headquarters’ transformation into the bookstore.

Christine and I assisted Jonny Buss, local artist, with the mural on the outside of the door. The mural combines images of books with look of the neighborhood houses. Jonny has completed other murals around Philadelphia including the mosaic project at Cedar park.

Jonny puts finishing touches on entrance mural

Besides working as a seller, I also decorated the window using a variety of themes.

Inspecting the store front

Christmas display

Womens’ History Month

Sports’ Theme

Bindlestiff Books is still thriving today. If you are on the 45th block of Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, please stop in or visit their They have a wonderful selection of children’s and graphic books. I always pick up a box of their notecards and wrapping paper when I’m in the area. Communities benefit from local businesses, as big box stores are not able to capture the charm and ambiance of these establishments. Bindlestiff Books remains a bright spot on the Baltimore corridor.

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