Tag Archives: Philadelphia Housing Authority

Why Public Art Matters

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and  Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the Women of Jazz mural.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and affordable housing? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

Women in Jazz: Pearl Bailey

As Women in Jazz Month winds down, I want to salute Pearl Bailey who began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia. She lived in this house which is located just a few blocks from North Philly’s famed “Golden Strip.”

Pearl Bailey House

In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman, a musical written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.

Women of Jazz Mural

The Women of Jazz mural features many of the most iconic female jazz performers in the world, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Shirley Scott, Dottie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Mary Lou Williams. The tiles below and to the left of the mural were designed by students at several of the city’s public schools.

Women of Jazz Mural

Smith, affectionately called Miss Dot, is the blonde next to Nina Simone. She was a longtime resident of Strawberry Mansion and a former manager of the legendary Gert’s Lounge. Miss Dot died in December 2014.

Women of Jazz is included in the Mural Arts Program’s African American Iconic Images Collection.

UPDATE: In 2016, the Philadelphia Housing Authority demolished the mural.

Richard Allen Homes Community Center

Tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes grew up in this public housing project whose residents included Lee Morgan and Bill Cosby.

Bootsie Barnes and Bill Cosby

Barnes recalled dancing the bop with others at the community center where jam sessions were held. His “Boppin’ Round the Center” was inspired by his childhood memories.