Artists bring bold new vision to stretch of Germantown Avenue
June 5, 2012By Peter Crimmins
Andreas (Dre) Urhahn spent six years painting huge stripes and color blocks across entire buildings in a Brazilian favela -- a kind of self-generating slum. He and his partner, Jeroen Koolhaas, see similar potential in North Philadelphia.
"Especially the industrial buildings surrounded by communities and neighborhoods," said Urhahn. "There is all this space, changing spaces with buildings that are falling apart. Some are built strong and will be there as remnants of an industrial age, other parts are falling down and becoming open space in a really weird way."
Haas and Hahn, as they are known, are now painting four blocks along Germantown Avenue -- from 2500 to 2800 -- in a bold patchwork of copper red, forest green, pastel pink, and lemon yellow. The color pattern knits together stucco storefronts, brick apartments, and warped plywood where windows used to be.
Not all the building owners have agreed to be part of the project, but many are jumping on board as the unusual paint job creeps down the block.
Haas and Hahn rented a nearby apartment to get to know the neighborhood and the building owners. They eat in the diners, shop in the stores, and talk with the locals.
"We are weird foreigners, and if you are a weird foreigner, that grants you access," said Urhahn. "If somebody asks me, 'What are you doing here?' I can just say, 'I'm an artist from Amsterdam.' Sometimes it's important to be a little bit alien in order to blend in."
Another way to blend in is to hire locally. Urhahn has about a dozen people from the area on the payroll to do the painting. Lateef Rawls, 22, is getting both a paycheck and vocational training in building restoration. He grew up in this neighborhood.
"It's rough. It's dry," said Rawls, pointing to the vacant buildings and boarded-up windows. "As you can see, the Avenue is dry. It's barren. The government, the powers that be have stranded us, turned a blind eye toward us."
A beautiful nightmare
The project, "Philly Painting," involves minimal surface restoration. Several buildings need major overhauls. Case in point: On the corner of Germantown and Lehigh avenues is the Sun Pay building, with a huge brick facade, a turret on the corner, and peaked roof cornices. The architectural elements are visibly crumbling.
"This building is the building that I love the most. It's also a nightmare," said Urhahn. "It's incredibly beautiful. It deserves a lot of attention. You can't just go there with a brush and paint it, because, one, it's falling apart. And if it wasn't falling apart it would be a monument and you shouldn't touch it. It's an unusual situation. What on Earth are you going to do with it?"
The painting project has put the buildings owner in touch with city officials to talk about its future, which is still uncertain.
Tok Hui Kelly has been the owner of a corner variety store for 14 years. The stucco and part of her concrete foundation was repaired to be able to take the paint. She, too, is thinking about the future.
"Everything is temporarily good, you know that, right?" said Kelly in broken English. "Right now it's shiny and look nice. Hope it stay that way. Nothing guarantee, you know that, right?"
Currently, the city is giving the entire corridor a multimillion-dollar face-lift, including new street lights, regular cleanings, and tree maintenance.
Philly Paintings is a small part of that revitalization effort, with additional money coming from the Knight Foundation.
By year's end, Urhanh hopes to have all the businesses on the four-block stretch on board -- and painted.