Inspired by “Loving Day”
Today was one of those gorgeous fall days in the city that feel more like Summer’s last ditch effort to hang in there – minus the humidity and with the added bonus of the delightful smell of Fall. You know days like this, right? The air carries a wood-smoked scent mingled with just a scattered trace of freshly mowed grass, the sun is shining and a gentle breeze ever so softly tricks an early autumn leaf into a downward spiral. Dare I say it? It was simply too nice of a day to have my head in a book! So, I decided to ditch the fiction, throw on my knapsack and go for a stroll. As luck would have it, there was a Germantown mural walking tour hosted by Walk Germantown and led by Robert Seely that caught my eye. I had just recently finished Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, a semi-autobiographical novel based in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood, Germantown, and I was eager to explore more of this city I now called home.
“This, this feeling, this, is Philly.” – Mat Johnson, Loving Day
The main character in Loving Day is a comic-book artist and art of various forms plays an important role in the story. Loving Day inspired me to explore the mural-artist side of Germantown and I was not disappointed.Although Loving Day “literally” depicts Germantown in a less than favorable light, I found that the neighborhood’s true glory and that of the people who call it home are more accurately reflected “artistically” by the renderings of the muralists. As you know, I just love to combine my two favorite things: Reading and Exploring! So without further ado…
WHAT TO SEE: GERMANTOWN MURAL TOUR
Art! Murals! Germantown murals! Philadelphia, USA. October is mural arts month, so let’s go on a walking mural tour!
You can start anywhere you want, but I suggest beginning at the corner of Chelten Avenue and Wayne Avenue. You can get there by car and will find ample parking at Chelten Market. Traveling by public transportation? No problem! Hop off the Chestnut Hill West line at Chelten Station and stroll a block or two up to Wayne or jump on one of the SEPTA buses – Germantown is easy to get to! The basic route, without the suggested Side Trips, will probably only take about an hour.
1. Mural: History, Commerce, Community
At Chelten and Wayne you’ll find one of the newest Philadelphia Mural Arts program’s murals. This Germantown mural was only recently installed, replacing a long standing favorite after structural repairs to the wall forced its replacement. Aptly named, the new mural, which was chosen by community vote, reflects the history of the commerce and community in Germantown. As you continue the tour, look closely on Germantown Avenue for the various buildings portrayed. The buildings may have changed in use, but many retain their historic appearance.
From Chelten Market go left on Wayne and head toward Schoolhouse Lane where you’ll make a left. As you turn the corner onto Schoolhouse Lane, take a gander to your left. (I know…three lefts really do make a right! But, you just can’t do that when there are physical structures in your way!) You will see this magnificent brick building called the Fairfax. It was designed by Julian Abele, the first African American admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture and the designer of much of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including the front steps celebrated in the 1976 film, Rocky. The entrance way on Wayne is stunning, but the gate to the entrance on Schoolhouse is really the showstopper.
Continue to make your way up Schoolhouse Lane toward Greene Street ** Errrrrt….Schreeching halt! Literary reference pit stop! ** On the corner of Greene Street and School House Lane you will see Greene Street Friends School on your left and Germantown Friends School on your right. Warren Duffy, the fictional character in Loving Day, attended Greene Street Friends. The campuses of both of these private, parochial Quaker schools stretch almost all the way to the next block, Germantown Avenue. That’s where we find our next mural.
2. Mural: Healing Through Faith and Spirituality
Cross over Germantown Avenue and there you will observe this geometric mural sponsored by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services. According to the plaque, “[t]he mural design underscores the notion that respecting and including culture and peoples’ faith and spiritual practices and beliefs can aid in greater healing and harmony.” I have no doubt that the characters in Loving Day would wholly agree with this sentiment. It may have helped keep Warren out of the clink.
Side trip: If you are thirsty, head down Germantown Avenue (toward School House Lane) and grab a cup of gourmet coffee at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. If you have time, visit Market Square, the Germantown Historic Society and the Germantown “Whitehouse” located just a few steps away. Check out Freedom’s Backyard for details on operating hours because these and many historic locations in Germantown have limited operating hours.
3. Mural: Urban Farming
Not far up Germantown Avenue (toward Armat) and across the street from the Imperfect (Art) Gallery is an older Germantown mural depicting an apple picking scene. The mural was a project of the Department of Recreation assisted by Melon Bank and the Urban Tree Connection. Despite the obvious neglect and lack of upkeep, it still maintains a pleasing appearance. For a great example of urban farming in Germantown, check out the Germantown Kitchen Garden on Penn Street.
4. Mural: Voices of Germantown
Continue up Germantown Avenue, then make a left onto Armat Street. Immediately to your left (there are a lot of lefts in this tour!) you will see this Germantown mural reflecting the diversity of voices in the neighborhood. This is a gorgeous mural that simply cannot be capture in one shot. Make sure to read the text on the far left and take it all in. It truly does speak volumes.
Side trip: Thirsty for a great cup of coffee? Want to peruse some vintage books? Cross Armat Street and head down that little brick/cobblestone alley into Maplewood Mall. I highly recommend a stop at the Germantown Espresso Bar for some cold brew. Say “Hi!” to Miles and Jeff for me!
Back on Germantown Avenue, head for Chelten Avenue. As you stroll, look lively! I bet you will recognize one of these buildings from our first mural. You are now in the heart of the shopping area of Germantown. It’s not the fanciest place on Earth, but it’s got history and culture and a community dedicated to its revival. I see great things happening here. I bet if Mat Johnson came back to visit Germantown he would be very pleasantly surprised by it all and maybe even re-write the book to be a little less critical of Germantown.
Continuing approximately two blocks you will come to Rittenhouse Street. You will see one of two closely positioned Germantown murals as you approach Rittenhouse, but keep going, make the left onto Rittenhouse, and then after you pass the brick building turn left into the grassy lot. There are two Germantown murals here.
5. Mural: Love is the Message
The first mural is a photograph mural. I’ve never seen one like this before. And certainly never saw one where the person leading the tour was one of the stars of the mural! Lucky us! Can you find Robert in this Germantown mural?
Once you’ve had your fill of that mural, turn around and feast your eyes on the mural showcasing just a few of the important women of Germantown’s history. One woman, Dinah, was a former slave who saved Stenton house from being burned to the ground by British soldiers . (Loving Day’s Warren Duffy might not have fantasized about torching Loudin Mansion if he had received some wise words from her!)
6. Mural: Women of Germantown
We are almost at the end of the Germantown mural tour. All you need do is continue down Rittenhouse Street (away from Germantown Avenue) and just as you get to McCallum Street you’ll see a parking lot on your left (Yes, your left! Aaaaagain.) Turn in there and in the far right corner is the next Germantown mural.
7. Mural: Life in Germantown
I mentioned to the group that I had recently read Loving Day and that this Germantown mural did not seem to depict life in Germantown in any way similar to the way it is depicted in Loving Day. The tour participants were all in agreement that the Germantown of Loving Day is not the Germantown of today. Sure, like in any urban setting, they agreed, there are residents suffering from poverty, lack of education, drug abuse, broken families and other factors not depicted in this idyllic mural scene adjacent to Vernon Park. However, just as Vernon Park has blossomed, so shall Germantown again. This is a community that is coming together to make that happen. That spirit of community is reflected (no pun intended) in the next stop – a temporary Monument Lab installation.
8. Monument Lab Installation: The Battle is Joined
From the last Germantown mural, step down into Vernon Park, an oasis in Germantown that was once buried in neglect. Today, thanks to the steadfast efforts of a community group, Friends of Vernon Park, this is once again a park where children can play safely; where friends can gather in the shade of the towering trees; and where one can bear witness to a monument temporarily covered in reflective material “as a way to bring people closer to one another, their surroundings, and their living histories.” This installation is by artist Karyn Olivier and is one of the Monument Lab projects available to view through mid-November.
9. Mural: World Peace
Exit the park at the opposite end of the Monument Lab (Battle of Germantown) monument onto Greene Street. Go left on Greene and then right onto Chelten Avenue toward Knox Street. Tucked onto Knox Street is the mural seeking World Peace. This 2016 Germantown mural is the 13th mural created as part of the World Peace Mural Tour. It is simple, but effective in conveying its message.
10. Mural: Ecosystems
As you head back to your car, make sure you check out the sidewalk murals along the way near the library and on Chelten Avenue. Just before you jump back in your car, take a few moments to view the mosaic tile mural on the wall at the Mastery Charter School on the corner of Wayne and Chelten. It is quite an impressive portrayal of the various ecosystems around the world.
11. Loudoun Mansion and a mural
Before you head home, drive less than a mile down the road and take a few minutes to walk by Loudoun Mansion (the real-life and allegedly (also) haunted version of Loving Day‘s Loudin mansion). Located at 4650 Germantown Avenue, it is not currently open to the public having been actually damaged in a fire in the early 1990’s. You can, however, stroll the grounds and picture all the Melange trailers camped out for their make-shift school. Across Germantown Avenue you’ll find another Germantown mural worth viewing, too. This is a Mural Arts project created in 2012.
Now that you know where to go, all you need is a knapsack properly packed for a walking tour and off you’ll go! A self-guided walking tour seeking out murals is a fantastic way to spend a gorgeous Fall day. There’s not much to it, but you’ll want to make sure you bring along a few essentials:
- Cushioned sole shoes are of utmost importance!
- Lightweight jacket or a scarf
- Small, lightweight umbrella
- Camera (of course!)
- Spending money
- The Novel Tourist, of course!
That’s pretty much all you need to stroll around and check out Germantown murals. If you haven’t already read it, be sure to augment the adventure by reading Loving Day!
Loving Day by Mat Johnson
A semi-autobiographical novel, Loving Day focuses on Warren Duffy, a newly divorced, failing comic book artist who discovers that he is the father of a biracial teenager who was raised believing she was only Caucasian. Warren’s struggles with his own cultural identity as a mixed race person come to a head at an old, dilapidated mansion in the heart of Germantown. Art, in various forms, plays an important role in many of the characters’ expressions of their frustrations, anger, love and identity.
I was inspired to read Loving Day because I currently call Germantown, home. It was an easy read and makes an important statement about race and identity. However, I was disappointed with how it portrays Germantown and the people who live here. I’d give it a personal 3.0 out of 5 stars.
Did you read Loving Day? Take the Germantown Mural tour? I’d love to hear your thoughts!