Neighbors are part of the decor in a South Phila. neighborhood

"Turning this building we bought into a giant holiday greeting is our Christmas wish for our neighbors," Kate Mellina said. "The pictures are a reflection on the qualities of the neighborhood."
"Turning this building we bought into a giant holiday greeting is our Christmas wish for our neighbors," Kate Mellina said. "The pictures are a reflection on the qualities of the neighborhood."
Posted: December 25, 2013

Sometimes, the breadth and din of a big city conspire to make a person feel alone, anonymous, unseen.

But on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, neighbors are not only known, but celebrated.

During the holiday season, 27 photos of neighborhood residents have been displayed from the windows of a three-story building at Passyunk and Tasker Street.

Lights illuminate the 18- by 24-inch black-and-white photos, displayed on translucent corrugated plastic.

Between 4 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. each day, the guy from down the corner and the lady across the street glow in the early winter darkness, and mere people are transformed - into Christmas decorations, into neighborhood icons, into art.

"Turning this building we bought into a giant holiday greeting is our Christmas wish for our neighbors," said Kate Mellina, whose husband, Dave Christopher, took the photos. "The pictures are a reflection on the qualities of the neighborhood. It's a real community."

For Mellina, 60, who was born in Northeast Philadelphia, then later exhausted herself as a City Council member and advocate in Asbury Park, N.J., coming to this slice of urban heaven in the spring of 2012 was nothing short of salvation.

"After Asbury, I was burnt out and didn't like myself or anyone else," said Mellina, who now creates art with found objects.

Finding herself amid the warm feeling and neighborly pride of East Passyunk, it turns out, was the most fulfilling artwork of her life, she said.

"I am so glad we landed here," she said.

The idea for the art installation came in an instant. Earlier this year, the couple was sitting on the third floor, waving to neighbors who didn't see them.

In that way that married couples of 24 years have, Mellina and Christopher started riffing on how they could be better seen greeting friends on the street. They joked that they should install a photo of themselves waving.

Within 10 minutes, they alighted on the project, and set about asking neighbors to pose.

Christopher, 62, an executive at Merck & Co. in West Point, Montgomery County, had been an avid photographer in Asbury Park, taking pictures of musicians in local clubs. He brought his skills and his Nikon D3S digital camera to the project.

"The neighbors all bought in," said Christopher, a former West Texas cowboy who met Mellina in the statistics department at Oklahoma State University. ("Always marry a cowboy," Mellina likes to tell people. "They can make and do anything.")

The photos went up around Thanksgiving, and will come down in mid-January.

At first startling, the photographs created a kind of sensation in the neighborhood.

"It's pretty amazing," said Fernando Quesada, 47, a corporate-relocation expert who lives next door to Mellina and Christopher. In his picture, he perpetually smiles onto the street with a natural ease.

"It's just very interesting and artsy," he said. "Brilliant, really."

That's the word from Victor Mele, a 59-year-old landlord on the block. He and his German shepherd mix, Bella, 11, posed together for Christopher for their big window close-up.

"The pictures emphasize the friendliness of the neighborhood," Mele said.

He adds that strangers walking through the area now will stop him and Bella and remark that they're famous, staring down on the multitudes like local superstars.

"Oh, I get recognized," Mele said, sounding like world-weary paparazzi bait.

At first, said Melissa Barrow, in her early 30s, being an art object scared her.

"But now," said the medical administrator, "it makes me laugh to see myself smiling up there."

For everyone else in the area, residents say, the photos communicate a joyous sense of connection.

"Very few things in life turn out to be completely happy," Mellina said. "But that's what this is."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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