Philly lawyer's mural of justice draws objection

November 9, 2008 2:00:55 PM PST
In the city where a young nation held some of its earliest Supreme Court sessions, attorney Paul Rosen can't imagine a better place for a mural about justice. But his opponents say Rosen - like justice - must be blind if he thinks the planned site near one of this city's toniest neighborhoods is appropriate.

It would be a typical not-in-my-backyard controversy except that mural supporters say they hear a darker undercurrent in the resistance - namely, that murals connote blight and aren't good enough for uptown ZIP codes like Rittenhouse Square, where luxury high-rises, upscale shopping and sidewalk bistros hug a historic park.

"How could anybody complain about this?" Rosen said. "A mural about justice is proper in every neighborhood."

The story starts when Rosen, a longtime Rittenhouse resident whose clients include former local TV anchor Alycia Lane, suggested the mural as a project for his law firm's charitable foundation.

He chose an "ugly" space on a side street off the square: the entire side wall of a row house bordering a parking lot. Rosen leased the wall and commissioned artist Michael Webb to come up with an image depicting "justice."

The resulting 38-foot-long mural portrays a leafy scene in a stone courtyard with statues of legal giants such as attorney Clarence Darrow and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. "Courtyard of Justice" would be one of more than 2,800 murals in a city known for such artwork.

This one, though, has created "so much animosity," said Diane Dalto, a Rittenhouse resident who is also chairwoman of the state Council on the Arts.

"Friends are pitted against friends, and neighbors against neighbors," Dalto told Philadelphia Magazine for a story in the October issue. She did not return requests for comment.

Rosen sought to put the project under the auspices of the city's renowned Mural Arts Program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Program director Jane Golden agreed and convened two community meetings starting last spring.

By all accounts the first meeting, which Rosen estimated drew 50 people, was cordial and even constructive, with residents suggesting modifications to the mural.

Dissenters first appeared in June at the second meeting; Rosen described it as having "the underpinnings of prejudice" and using "buzzwords" to convey the idea that murals belonged in less affluent neighborhoods.

"No one had a problem with the art," Rosen said, referring to Webb's design. "The only problem was, 'Not in our neighborhood."' Architect David S. Traub, who attended the second meeting, said recently that the mural's "tremendous visual impact" would ruin the character of the street, which is in a historic district and in the heart of downtown.

"Rittenhouse Square and its environs belong to the whole city. The placement of that work of art should be of great concern to everyone," Traub said.

It's different from putting a mural in, say, the Mantua section of the city, "where only the neighborhood people are generally concerned," Traub said. Mantua, a low-income community, has little commercial and tourist traffic, but Traub said site-appropriate murals can be placed in neighborhoods of any income level.

Golden and resident Renee Zuritsky, a mural supporter, said they also detected resistance about the process - that foes felt the justice theme was foisted upon them. Webb said he sensed that opponents didn't see murals as professional artistic endeavors, but rather the first step on a slippery slope to tacky storefronts and signs.

Chila Mosley, 48, who works a couple of blocks from the site, recently examined a rendering of the mural as she peered down the street where it will appear. Her biggest problem? It would be too hidden to be appreciated.

While she understands how some residents might feel the project "more or less cheapens their neighborhood," Mosley said murals should not be stereotyped as bandages for blight.

"Art can be placed in any neighborhood and can make it look very beautiful," she said.

The Mural Arts Program ended up backing out of the project after the second meeting; Golden also received some anti-mural phone calls and said she "didn't want to be involved in a process that brought dissension to a community." She dropped another Rittenhouse mural proposal around 2004 for the same reason.

Meanwhile, officials at the city's Historic Commission say the mural requires their approval, but Rosen says approval is not necessary for a graffiti-exposed side wall with no historic significance. He intends to have it up by Christmas.

His law firm's Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation is funding the project and donating it to the Mural Arts Program with a grant to take care of it in perpetuity - or at least until something is built on the parking lot, which is bound to happen eventually in the pricey neighborhood.

That, to some, would surely be poetic justice.

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.


Load Comments