Public art serves many purposes: it can commemorate an historic event, celebrate local culture, and beautify a space. In a neglected alley in South Philadelphia, it's also being used to fight crime.
Muralist David Guinn and lighting designr Drew Billiau collaborated on the recently completed Electric Street mural on Percy Street in South Philly—a composition of prismatic LED lights (which change color every 10 minutes) and a geometric pattern painted on a formerly blighted wall.
A J-shaped jog located between busy thoroughfares, Percy St. has attracted illegal behavior like drug use, drug dealing, and public urination as residents in the area have witnessed. Electric Street is designed for "eyes on the street," to borrow the phrase urbanist Jane Jacobs coined—the idea that the more people who are out and about, the safer a street. With Electric Street, the crime deterrents are Instagram-snapping passersby lured into the alley's corner by technicolor lights. Their presence becomes the eyes Percy Street didn't have before.
"We can increase safety and visibility at the same time as creating an interesting artistic experience," Guinn says. "The original motivation, from the Passyunk Square Civic Association, was to do something on Percy Street to reduce the opportunity for illicit behavior that the semi-private space presents. By attracting people to the space, we hope that increases safety. Crime deterrence isn't the only motivation though. It's a project born in a community need, and by attending to that need in a creative way, I hope we open the door for more creative interventions."
While some police departments have resorted to carting in movable floodlights to hopefully ward off would-be criminals—a tactic the NYPD calls "ominipresence"—Guinn and Billiau's mural is designed to have a similar effect through beauty instead of intimidation.
"[Public art] is completely underutilized," Billiau says. "It makes people happy and this project has brought people and the community together. Neighbors meet other neighbors that they may not have known before." Guinn concurs: "Applying art in the public space supports our emotional and spiritual well being," he says. "In more concrete terms, like Drew said, it's something that brings people together strengthens the civic fabric."
Balmy Alley, a famous San Francisco alley emblazoned with murals, inspired the project. The outdoor gallery has become a destination for locals and tourists alike and Guinn and Billiau hope to replicate the effect in South Philadelphia. They're already planning designs for three or four other buildings on the street. If funding comes through, their vision of an alley-long art project may become an even more beautiful contribution to the cityscape.
[Photos: Jennifer Francesco]