Twenty years ago, The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program started with a simple premise - offer up-and-coming artists new canvas space, and they would transform the city's struggling neighborhoods.
Now, murals from South Philly to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge have been credited as a key part of the city's
But on Waverly Street, the transformative potential of mural art has come face-to-face with Philadelphia's past.
Artist Dee Chin's The Death of Venus, painted on the building at the corner of 15th and Waverly streets, was cited last month for violating the city codes: A vote by the Philadelphia Historical Commission declared that the mural detracted from the Victorian-era building's historical value and ordered it removed.
According to real-estate broker Michael Sher, who paid Chin to create the mural in 2002, it was the artwork's controversial content - it depicts the transgendered Chin's personal transformation into a woman - that turned the commission off.
"I think it's part political," he said. "There's a real anti-art atmosphere in Philadelphia right now."
The fight's not over, though, for Sher, who is planning to appeal a decision that he calls "typical of the governmental functions in a dictatorship."
"I just feel very strongly that [the commission] is doing something that's very objectionable in a free society," he said. "If it's privately funded, I don't see how the community should get involved with that."
Problems arose because Sher did not initially seek the commission's approval, though he was later granted a four-year permit that expired last month.
The commission decided to discuss the mural's merits once again and voted 6-4 against renewing its permit, citing its lack of historical value.
"We were not making judgments on the quality of the mural, on the aesthetics or the social issues involved in the mural, and we're certainly not making any judgments on the artist herself," Commission Chairman Michael Sklaroff said.
Residents in the neighborhood have aligned with Sher, saying that it made the street safer and livelier.
"Given how many murals there are, there is room for a couple of difficult, challenging ones," said Michael Lewis, who lives in the neighborhood at 23rd and Naudain streets. "It's not a greeting card about distinguished Philadelphians; . it's a strongly personal vision."
Lewis, a professor of art history at Williams College, has written a letter of support asking the commission to reconsider its decision, and other area residents have argued that the mural has its societal benefits as well.
"This whole block is in support of the mural just because of the changes that they've noticed since the murals gone up," said Liz Zimmers, who moved to Waverly Street a year before the mural was painted. "It's no longer just this alley where people kind of hang out or deal drugs on the corner."
But Penn City Planning professor Amy Hillier, who has headed a project of her own to raise a mural to W.E.B. DuBois on Penn's campus, said that, despite Sher's good intentions, he should have solicited the help of the Mural Arts program before commissioning the project.
"While it may be great content, it's not great process," she said. "I am someone who is a process person and respects process."
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