A Love Letter From Philadelphia

This article, which was first published in House of Coco’s Spring 2015 magazine, was awarded the General Consumer Magazine Travel Feature award at the Visit USA Media Awards in July 2016.

If we asked you to name the top three places you most want to visit in America, we bet Philadelphia wouldn’t come close to featuring.  In fact, we bet if we pushed you so far as your top 10, it probably still wouldn’t cut the mustard. 

The City of Brotherly Love is an absolute must for those looking to broaden their understanding of the states and its place in the public art world.  Surprised?  Admittedly, we were a little taken aback too.  Philadelphia – paving the way for the art scene on a global scale?  Surely not.  But newsflash it is.  Amy Berman tells us more…

Picture this – it’s springtime in America.  The birds are singing, the sun is shining and Rihanna is just about to release another album.  You’re putting your travel itinerary together – New York (check), DC (check), maybe even a cheeky trip to Boston to see if you can run into Ben Affleck on the school run.  But before you pack your bags and get your passport ready for a stamp, we’ve got another, somewhat off the beaten track suggestion for you to consider – Philly.  And not just Philly.  Philadelphia by train.

Is there a more romantic way to travel than by train?  Sure, you could throw in a rose and a romantic meal while John Legend croons in the background, but the truth is, it’s not necessary.  Seeing the world by train not only opens your eyes to the passing landscape, but also your mind to the possibilities of what the future holds.  Who among us has not gazed out of a slightly steamed train window while some sort of motivational 80s classic (a la Whitesnake) booms out of your iPod, and thought: Yep, here I do go on my own?  Just us?  Didn’t think so.

The truth is, we take the world’s railways for granted.  We really only recognise Japan’s efforts (the beauty of the Bullet) when considering the countries we travel by train. But why has no one been shouting about east coast America, and specifically Philadelphia as a place we should see by train?

Sure, it’s not your standard American adventure, but we think the whole Route 66 by convertible has been done.  There’s a lot more to be said for boarding a train in New York, bagel breakfast in hand, and beginning the just over an hour artistic journey of a lifetime, culminating in an authentic Philly cheesesteak on the other side.  (So we’re greedy – sue us).

The railroad corridor between New York’s Penn Station and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, once filled with the bog-standard refineries, fields and maybe the odd cow if you’re lucky, has seen some drastic changes in the past year.  The city of Philly is upping the stakes and saying “Hey World, look at me!” with a striking addition to the landscape.

German artist, Katharina Grosse has transformed Amtrak’s Northeast rail corridor into what can only be described as revolutionary art.  Intermingled with standard graffiti, junk heaps and weedy slopes is a sequence of seven “murals,” together titled “psychylustro”.

Grosse, the Berlin-based artist known for her embrace of unusual canvases and for working with spray guns, rather than brushes, has designed the Amtrak piece specifically to be viewed from inside a moving train.  The first site, an abandoned garment factory in North Philly, was previously marked with years of accumulated graffiti.  But buildings are not the only objects transformed by Grosse’s project.  Bridges, track-side plant life, and fences have also received brightly coloured coats of paint, sure to add sparkle to any train travel (Whitesnake playing or otherwise).

The initiative is part of Amtrak’s efforts to patronise the arts, and has been commissioned in conjunction with the 30 year old City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, known for its successful graffiti abatement efforts. If you’ve never heard of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, it’s time to not only wake up, but to see it for yourself.

The program’s work is rooted in the idea that art ignites change (a philosophy we here at House of Coco are more than happy to get on board with).  The organisation creates art with others to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions. Through this work, it establishes new standards of excellence in the practice of public and contemporary art.

Its process empowers artists to be change agents, stimulates dialogue about critical issues, and builds bridges of connection and understanding. Mural Arts’ work is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness, and progress across all of society. And through beautiful collaborative art, the organisation provides people with the inspiration and tools to seize their own future.  Inspirational much? Why yes, we think so.

Mural Arts was first established in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti‐Graffiti Network’s effort to eradicate the city’s graffiti crisis. Artist Jane Golden was hired to reach out to graffiti writers and redirect their energies to constructive public art projects.

One particular partnership which caught our eye at House of Coco is a joint venture between Mural Arts and internationally renowned artist Stephen Powers. Together they embarked on the creation of a work of art unprecedented in Philadelphia—a series of over 50 rooftop murals and street-level signs in and around the Market Street corridor in West Philadelphia, spanning from 46th Street through 63rd Street—during the summer of 2009.

The complete work of art and film, collectively titled Love Letter, are unlike anything Philadelphia (or we) have ever seen from its public art in terms of size, scope, ambition, and universal appeal. The murals are artistically-designed text, and mostly seen from the elevated train along the upper levels of row homes in West Philadelphia. They read like love notes from a boy to a girl from different neighbourhoods, in non- sequential messages, like analogue versions of modern-day text messages.  A romantic nod to the way we fall in love in the 21st century is an art form currently capturing our hearts and minds.

For this project, Powers returned to paint Love Letter across the very same rooftops under which he came of age in Philadelphia. The driving concept behind the project is the story of a boy writing on walls to win the heart of a girl who rides the El train through West Philadelphia each day. See, we told you trains are romantic.

He leaves her a “love letter” along the upper walls of the buildings that are visible from the train, in hopes that she will see them, and they can be together. The work functions both as a love story between two young adults and a beautiful proclamation of an artist’s love for his city, his neighbourhood, and the trains that are a part of its core. In Powers’ own words, the project is a “love letter meant for one but with meaning for all.”

If we haven’t convinced you yet about the beauty of Philadelphia and its public art, let’s back up.  You may well be wondering what makes Philly so great, beyond the art.  Well, America’s Most Cultured City, as rated by Travel+Leisure, is steeped in history.  It is the birthplace of America and the Liberty Bell – a resonant symbol of freedom around the world. Within the one square mile surrounding Independence Hall, a UNESCO heritage site, echoes of the past linger like a mild hangover as you stroll past the President’s House, Carpenter’s Hall, Washington Square Park, Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley and Franklin Court.

A walkable downtown area with parks, outdoor cafes, cobblestone streets alongside modern skyscrapers, and charming, friendly neighbourhoods, plus a city centre easily navigable in a grid centred by the impressive City Hall makes this (somewhat lesser travelled) city an absolute gem of a trip. Come on people – culture, cuisine, historic landmarks and streets that are easy for walking combined with tax-free shopping on clothes and shoes – what more do you want for your next American adventure?

If the promise of all that, plus dazzling orange buildings and pink spray-painted trees aren’t enough, there’s a whole world of art (street and otherwise) that lies uncovered in Philly. From 24th June – 13th September 2015, the city, which already boasts some of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist, will also be home to Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The exhibition comes to Philadelphia following stopovers in Musée du Luxembourg, Paris and the National Gallery in London. Philadelphia will be the only opportunity in the U.S. to see these priceless works of art and will showcase additional masterpieces only to be seen in Philadelphia.  Wow, Philly, we’re hearting you even more now.

We’re really not asking too much of you – just a total overhaul of how you previously thought you wanted to travel the states.  Throw the Corvette away and say buhbye to the Big Sur. Don’t misunderstand, you can still see and do all the basics, but America has much more to offer and we think some travellers are missing a trick.

Philadelphia is determined to fight for its place as a forward-thinking, trend-leading city of culture and change.  From its inspirational and motivational public art to its museums that are rivalling Paris, it’s paving the way for the American and global art scene and becoming a destination in its own right.

So here’s the deal – grab your cheesesteak, load Whitesnake on your iPod and board the train.  Philadelphia, in all its glory, is waiting for you.  Simply look out of the slightly steamed window.

For more information, visit the following websites:

Discover Philadelphia www.discoverphl.com

pscyholustro www.muralarts.org/katharinagrosse

Love Letter www.muralarts.org/collections/projects/love-letter


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