Percy Street in South Philadelphia is an abnormality in the city’s orderly grid, curving between South 9th Street and Reed Street, its seclusion making it a haven for littering and more illicit activities. “It’s sort of a ‘J’ shape, so when you’re in the middle it’s a blind spot,” explained mural artist David Guinn. “It’s in the middle of a busy area, so having this private space that anyone can go back into attracted people dumping trash, and pissing, and shooting up, and dealing drugs, and all kinds of things.”
Collaborating with lighting designer Drew Billiau, Guinn imagined an illuminated art installation that would add some vibrancy to the narrow street, while at the same time improving its visibility. “Electric Street,” which had its dedication on August 17, covers a section of wall with dynamic geometric shapes that at night are lit with LED arcs that change colors on a 10-minute program.
“I’ve always longed for the projects where you could treat a large space in the same intuitive manner that you might paint in a studio,” Guinn told Hyperallergic. Guinn, who has painted numerous large-scale murals around Philadelphia, had received a grant from the Knight Foundation for a project in a public space. His first plan for a mural in Center City fell through, and when he started talking to people in his own South Philadelphia neighborhood, he heard about this block that had been “a problem in the neighborhood for a long time.” In its report on the mural, Metro cities the Philadelphia Police Department in there having been “five aggravated assaults, two burglaries, 10 robberies, and 52 thefts within a two-block radius of Percy Street in the past six months,” although those stats are down from recent years.
With the support of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, as well as input from the Passyunk Square Civic Association in the neighborhood, Guinn and Billiau developed a multimedia work of paint and light, the electricity for which runs off an adjoining residential property. Since the lights are LEDs, the cost is only two or three dollars a month. “The dream would be to use solar panels, but that’s a future challenge to take on,” Guinn said, adding that they hope to find funding to extend the “Electric Street” further down the 400 feet of the block.
“If you’re passing by on one of the main streets, you look down the beginning of the alley, and you see this part of it glowing, and if you go towards it it kind of unfolds as you turn the corner and extends about 35 feet,” Guinn said of the current experience. “Ultimately I was interested in the phenomenon of glowing lights in the night. I just imagined this quiet space that you could walk into and it would be this psychedelic experience, and would have this dual role of discouraging [illicit activity].”
Since he lives just a couple of blocks away, he’s been able to see the impact of “Electric Street,” with more people gathering at night to take photographs, bike through, or even hang out for a party complete with speakers. It’s a small intervention in the grander scheme of things, and its longterm success has yet to be seen, but what was once a dodgy, dark alley is now a luminous art experience.
“Electric Street” by David Guinn and Drew Billiauon is on Percy Street between Reed and South 9th Street in Philadelphia.