Brawl on the Square

Jane Golden built the Mural Arts Program into one of the city’s proudest achievements, a testament to the power of art to transform neighborhoods. Then a painting proposed for Rittenhouse Square ruffled the feathers of the city’s elite — and all hell broke loose

But before the first brushstroke could be made, Jane Golden insisted on calling a meeting of Rittenhouse residents. Over nearly 25 years, she had learned the hard way that it was better to deal with any neighborhood opposition to a mural early in the process rather than later. And while she’d worked in every Philadelphia neighborhood considered “tough,” Golden knew that the areas considered most genteel could be the most dangerous for her mission.

She and Webb hadn’t mentioned it to Paul Rosen at that point, but they’d had a proposed mural a few blocks south of Rittenhouse Square squelched by a small group of neighbors several years earlier. “A few people were able to block it,” Webb says. “They would not allow my design to even be looked at. It was just, No murals, no murals. There’s a feeling with some people that murals are a symbol that says, ‘Your neighborhood is blighted.’”

It’s hard to imagine how anyone around Rittenhouse Square could see a mural — no matter what it represented — giving the neighborhood the taint of blight. Yes, as the Inquirer would soon discover for a front-page series that was earth-shaking in its obviousness, there are homeless people who sleep, eat, bathe, and even have sex in the Square. A few of the last remaining townhouses on the perimeter are vacant and falling into disrepair. But two sleek and pricey apartment buildings are going up around the Square. Allan Domb’s company is still marketing the location as our equivalent to Palm Beach or Central Park. And resale prices in the established apartment buildings are strong.

“It’s a bunch of rich people who spent about $500 to $1,000 a square foot for their apartments,” says mural proponent and Rosen partner Alan Epstein. “And they’re quite proud of that kind of price appreciation. What do they want, a picture of a blond-haired woman in a pageboy?”

AT THE FIRST neighborhood meeting to discuss Rosen’s Justice mural, the polite veneer of Square social interaction was on display. On a warm evening in April, about three dozen people gathered in the garden of the Philadelphia Art Alliance at the corner of 18th and Rittenhouse streets.

That’s not a huge number, but the organizers from the Mural Arts Program hadn’t factored in an important impediment to communication in such a ritzy neighborhood. Their usual method of announcing a public meeting — spreading leaflets door-to-door — ran into strict rules forbidding leafleting at those apartment buildings where space costs $1,000 a square foot. “We might have been a little naive in that respect,” Golden admits.