Bella Vista neighbors work to prevent 'Autumn' mural's fall to development - October 20, 2011

By Peter Crimmins

The Mural Arts Program has launched a restoration fund, which will be used to maintain the more than 3,000 murals in Philadelphia.

But it might not save a beloved wall in South Philadelphia.

In 2001, David Guinn painted a mural called "Autumn"—one in a four-part seasonal series—on a wall overlooking a parking lot at Ninth and Bainbridge streets. When a developer bought the property with plans to build a single-family home, the surrounding homeowners in the Bella Vista neighborhood went on the attack.

"The biggest issue for the neighbors is the loss of the mural," said Jen Tucker, a neighbor who rallied 1,100 people to sign a petition in support of maintaining the mural. "It's such a cornerstone—such a source of pride. It's the reason people bring their kids there. It's the reason people come to the neighborhood. There are other reasons we don't want the house built, but that's the biggest reason."

Dozens crowded into a city zoning board hearing Wednesday to oppose the development. Zoning board officials shut down any testimony on behalf of the endangered mural, saying its fate is not within their jurisdiction. The board's chief concern was the developer's request for a parking variance.

Earlier, the neighbors attempted to buy the lot from the developer, called 631 South 9th Street, LLC, in order to save the mural, but their meetings grew hostile.

Citing an instance of the neighbors making public some overheard comments between himself and his client, Jim McIlhenny, attorney David Orphanides said the neighbors "want to do things their own way, they don't want to be reasonable. They had the opportunity to make this happen. We were listening to a point until they started acting they way they acted."

This degree of attachment to a mural in the face of development is unusual in the Mural Arts Program's 25-year history. In a more typical instance, a mural in the Mantua neighborhood--"Reaching For Your Star" by Donald Gensler, at 37th and Mt. Vernon--is slated to be destroyed to make room for a new grocery store, with no objections.

Mantua is an economically depressed neighborhood, while Bella Vista is significantly more affluent.