Mural program brings a tinge of hope to Mantua

The city's Mural Arts Program coordinated the transformation of the 3800 block of Melon Street in Mantua into this explosion of vibrancy. Counseling for youths is now available as well.
The city's Mural Arts Program coordinated the transformation of the 3800 block of Melon Street in Mantua into this explosion of vibrancy. Counseling for youths is now available as well. (RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2012

The shame on this narrow block of Melon Street lies in a series of handshakes, the ease of two young men in puffy coats standing against a redbrick house selling drugs on a winter day.

It is midafternoon, and their business is brisk: a rumpled man with a limp; a squatty older woman; and a young man on a bicycle with a backpack, the semblance of a college student.

In the last year, the 3800 block of Melon Street in Mantua, known as "the Bottom" for its position on the map of West Philadelphia, has been transformed into a work of art.

The facades of almost all of the houses, even the abandoned ones, were painted through a grand Mural Arts Program project. The result is a bright block mosaic, similar to houses in the hills of South America, that draws attention to the forgotten people.

Trash-strewn lots were cleared, and for six weeks a known drug house, where chained pit bulls stood guard, was converted into an art house. The works included paper furniture to represent the transient lives of young people who bounce from house to house - "couch surfing" among friends and family - because of the unstable situations they find themselves in.

Dozens of youths worked alongside the artists and were linked to social services, with some moving from shelters into permanent housing.

The art house also served as an information hub for housing, legal aid, health care, and employment.

Such efforts create "a subtle shift," said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, "as people start really seeing their neighborhood not as a forgotten place. They talk about it in terms of its potential."

Since the project - featured on the January 2012 cover of the American Journal of Public Health - ended, life on Melon Street has ebbed and flowed. Some long-timers moved on. A developer bought, renovated, and leased six affordable properties.

There are new neighbors, some drawn to local hospital and university jobs. The shuttered bar on the corner, where someone spray-painted "RIP TB," is being rehabbed into a single-family house.

But change has been a slow churn. In May, the month before the art house opened, a 21-year-old man was shot and killed on the block. And neighbors say the clap of gunshots often pierces any calm.

Lenece Ewell, on Melon Street a little more than a year, keeps her two teenage sons close.

"It's a shame," said Ewell, 45, sitting on her brown sofa as her daughter's 2-year-old son played at her feet. "They really can't go nowhere."

On the mantle, next to a green Bible, are her youngest son's basketball and football trophies. When the 13-year-old asks to go to the corner store, Ewell, who works nights as a security guard at Drexel University, offers to go instead.

When the oldest, a senior at a technology charter school who plans to study genetic nursing in college, asks to go out, Ewell demands to know where he's going and tells him to please come back before dark. She prefers when both are in, or away visiting friends. "I know they're safe at least, and they're not around here."

Oddly, the thought of moving from her worn house, where the dining-room floor sinks, brown stains spot the ceiling, and mold creeps into the boys' bedroom, terrifies her.

The family moved to the house from a shelter. The house where Ewell pays a portion of the $750-a-month rent is transitional. They soon must move to a public housing development in Southwest Philadelphia. Ewell hears from friends she's right to worry.

"I just don't want nobody coming to my sons saying, 'You want to sell some drugs.' I don't want anyone to say nothing to my sons."

For many, the Mural Arts project remains a source of pride and promise.

"I wanted it to last longer," said Sheila Johnson, who moved to Melon Street 45 years ago. There she married her first husband, now deceased, and raised four children. "I didn't want them to leave."

Last January, she went door to door and urged her neighbors to sign permission slips for the painting. "It's color," she told them, "to beautify the neighborhood."

Johnson, who also owns the two adjacent lots, has witnessed the same vicious cycle that has played out in many neighborhoods. Older residents die, and their houses are eventually abandoned by relatives. Drugs disrupt families, and children grow into corner boys. In Johnson's family, her grandson's body, shot and charred, was found two years ago in a car in the neighborhood. Her nephew was also gunned down. Both, she said, became caught up in the streets.

"They have no type of mentor," Johnson said of the youth she fussed over and mothered with encouragement. "No one that shows any type of concern for them. That's why they are the way they are. The only way for them to make a living is following what they see every day. That pains me."

Johnson left the block in the spring for an apartment in Delaware, partly for health reasons. Her son took over the house.

There is a wave coming to Mantua, to Melon Street, she said. Just look around at the new houses and diverse faces. And Mural Arts plans another project on another Mantua block.

"My mom and them used to say, 'The Bottom is going to be something one day,' " Johnson said, "and I'm actually seeing it."

Johnson recently posted a listing on a Drexel University message board, hoping to rent her house to a graduate or medical student. For her, change has also been bittersweet.

"I miss home," she said. "Even though I fuss, that's my home. I miss the kids, helping them get on the right path. I really miss it. I just want better for them, better for the neighborhood. I want our neighborhood to prosper."

Contact Kia Gregory

at 215-854-2601,, or follow @kiagregory on Twitter.

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