For more than 20 years, a monumental mural of former Philadelphia Mayor, Frank Rizzo, existed in the city’s Ninth Street Market. On June 7, 2020, it was officially painted over. While it was up, the mural was Philadelphia’s most vandalized public artwork. For years, contentious public discourse on the mural’s subject had been manifested on that wall.
Rizzo, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in South Philadelphia, rising to power in the late 1960s as police commissioner. While a local hero to some, his harsh policies systematically discriminated against Black and LGBTQ citizens. And in the Ninth Street Market, his monumental presence on that wall was felt daily by market workers and neighbors. Blossoming in the 1880s when Italian immigrants opened businesses along a 10-block corridor, the market was and remains a multicultural place where immigrants could find work — and where English wasn’t necessarily required. Today, you’ll see businesses run by Mexican, Central American, and Southeast Asian families, alongside Italian butchers and grocers. African Americans, moreover, were integral to the market’s foundation and continue to shape its history.
This June, as demands for racial justice swept the country, public monuments received renewed critical attention. Public murals and statues are visible markers of a community’s memories, histories, and values. With protests mounting in Philly, a statue of Rizzo installed across from City Hall was officially removed. And on June 3, Mural Arts Philadelphia announced they would decommission the Rizzo mural and no longer participate in its maintenance; the wall’s owners agreed shortly thereafter to have it painted over.
After 20 years of debate, the wall on the corner of Montrose and South Ninth Street was blank. Enter a group of Philadelphia artists and cultural workers who had spent years contemplating that wall or working with communities in and around the market. Feeling called to act, they began discussing what they could and should do — recognizing the urgency of the moment and the opportunity to offer a new perspective.
Michelle Angela Ortiz, an artist and muralist who grew up in the neighborhood and whose parents worked in the market, led the initiative. In a phone interview, Ortiz explained how she left quarantine to stand in front of the blank wall with her family, immediately thinking: We need a cleanse. For a wall that held so much tension, she said, “It was a moment to reimagine the possibilities of the space, to expand the collective history of the market.”
As collaborator Paul M. Farber said, “When a monument or mural comes down, the headline is often: What will replace this?” The group felt a need to pause — to create a moment that responded to the site’s nuances. “Because the Rizzo mural was such a site of division;” Farber said over the phone, “it needed more engagement, more conversation.” With no institutional funding, the team independently organized a one-night event titled CLEANSE in which videos and poetry was projected onto the wall. After the wall’s owners agreed, Ricardo Rivera, artist and cofounder of Klip Collective, mapped a projection for the three-story surface. Other collaborators, like Farber and Lori Waselchuk, handled documentation, public safety, and negotiating obstacles like streetlights. All spoke with business owners and neighborhood associations, recognizing the need to balance resistance and care. Within two weeks, the event was organized.
For artists contributing videos, the goal became reframing the market’s narrative and offering images that promoted collective, visual healing. Ortiz’s emphasized the emotional and physical labor of the market’s workers and residents, beginning with beautiful footage of her mother’s hands slowly swirling water in a large basin. Laura Deutch captured the corridor’s Latinx community, while Naomieh Jovin celebrated African-American business owners and workers. Kevin Nguyen, who also grew up in the neighborhood, documented the Vietnamese community — concluding with a moving sequence of his mother praying. The videos were interspersed with animations by Gabrielle Patterson and haikus by Ursula Rucker — the short phrases took on a monumental scale.
The evening of CLEANSE on July 11 was a small, socially distanced, and multigenerational gathering of artists, market workers, and neighbors — with the projections broadcast on a live Instagram feed. “It was emotional,” Ortiz said. “Many finally saw themselves as part of the story.” Farber echoed her sentiments. “It was amazing to see people pause as they walked or biked by. We were seeing something new on the horizon that wasn’t a storm. It was an acknowledgement that we were working through things together.”
Murals often arrive with social movements. Unlike statues, their existence is fleeting, if not intentionally temporary. And while murals can be documented, they can rarely be stored. Their relevance is determined by the individuals who walk past them — whether for 25 years or for one important evening. As Ortiz shared, “The importance of murals is the coming together of a community in the moment. And that moment is also monumental.”
New murals appear on walls across the United States daily. Recently we’ve seen “Black Lives Matter” painted in bright yellow letters across entire city blocks, monumental pieces dedicated to front-line workers, and commemorative paintings honoring individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor who were killed by police. Some of these works have already been defaced, others maintain bright coats of paint. To keep murals vibrant, they must be maintained — the communities in which they exist must reaffirm their public relevance. As citizens reconsider the murals or empty walls within their neighborhoods, CLEANSE offers a model of how to think through these sites and their relationship to the surrounding community.
Ultimately, CLEANSE responded to both a blank wall and the memory of what had been represented on that wall. And while it challenged histories, it also challenged public systems — offering alternative approaches to fighting for equity and anti-racism in Philadelphia. In a city covered in murals, the impermanence of the projections made CLEANSE possible — adding another chapter to the wall’s history and prepping it for whatever appears next.
Join Hyperallergic for an online conversation with cultural organizer and curator La Tanya S. Autry on February 1 at 7pm (EST).
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