The 1700 block of Germantown Avenue might provide the apex of visual juxtaposition in the City of Philadelphia.
A fallen street lamp lies before a graffiti-covered wall, a facade topped with prison-style razor wire choked with shredded plastic bags.
The backside of the triangular-shaped property features a gigantic airplane mural and mounds of concrete and dirt, sitting adjacent to a small urban garden, a rusty gate, and another painted urban canvass.
A worker with makeshift shin guards and a weed-whacker chops down overgrowth inside the complex, pausing to speak with me about the artwork sprayed all over these walls.
“It’s been here as long as I can remember,” says Tito, who is 37 years old.
Across the street, there’s another block of graffiti on a separate property, this painting featuring the likeness of the late hip-hop artist, Big Pun.
“That’s the only one they don’t touch,” Tito explains, alluding to the unwritten, self-policing nature of the site’s users.
The other walls are a free-for-all, with artists painting over each other’s work, some even leaving their Instagram handles as a signature below their individual pieces. This entire complex is not only a canvass for graffiti, but the artwork is encouraged. Instead of tagging and taking off, they want people to know they were here.
That may or may not change by the end of the year, because the site is going to be transformed into an urban mixed-use facility by a development company called Stull Investment.
Stull CEO Chadwick Smith sat down with Philly Views to discuss those plans.
“The intention with the property is a three-phase development,” said Smith. “We see a great opportunity for a mixture of uses, especially with the zoning code that exists on that site, but also with the location in general. It’s the crossroads of Fifth Street, Cecil B. Moore, and Germantown.
“In our opinion, it’s a very unique location that already has foot traffic, and it’s a space that is already a destination because of those walls. Due to that, we want to activate it with community spaces and, in the short term, create a pop-up retail type of venue. We’re even working on a music space for that venue in the yard.”
Smith says the first phase will be a five-story, 30,000 square foot building with a first floor of retail space and 30 to 40 total units. Offices and residential living will be mixed into different floors. Stull also plans to headquarter its tech company at the location.
Phase two will be a similarly mixed seven-story building featuring modern “heavy timber construction,” a more sustainable and green building method.
The future of the graffiti walls is yet to be determined, but it’s a topic that Smith is prioritizing.
“It’s something that we thought, as a creative development company, that we would be able to save and find a way to pay tribute to,” Smith told Philly Views.
“The artists will most definitely continue to do what they’re doing. We work with them on our existing projects, as well as this one. Some of the (artists) you see on the wall, we’ll allow them to keep painting. We’ll have to determine what we do with the walls, and that will be a group decision.
“We want all of the community to be a part of that. If (the walls) come down, they’ll be put up in a new place, but we would like to save as much as we can. My opinion, personally, is that when you remove something like that, it’s hard to put it back.”
Neighborhood reaction, Smith says, is split.
In the past, artists have been allowed to use the walls as they wish, with the only requirement being that they clean up after themselves. The site’s previous owner set those guidelines when the agreement was reached many years ago.
Street rules have resulted in an authentic, community-driven process.
“It’s just an interesting dynamic, where it’s a 50/50,” Smith explains. “You have existing community members who have been here longer that aren’t as emotionally attached to the walls. Then we have newer community members who are very attached. It’s been interesting to see.
“We thought there would be a large majority of people in the ‘save the wall’ category. We thought that would be more than 70 percent. What we’ve realized is that it’s right around a 50/50 split.”
During our sit down, for whatever reason, I recalled my days as a skateboarder, frequently getting booted from public areas on the mean streets of Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Neighbors were annoyed with wax-covered curbs and authorities were annoyed with what they perceived as a teenage loitering and nuisance issue.
More than anything, we just wanted a place of our own.
Goofy or not, Smith says that same concept applies to 1700 Germantown.
“Exactly, it’s a location that artists use for practice,” he explains. “There aren’t (enough of those spaces). That’s what we want to be. That’s the logic behind it … coming here and trying something and it’s open and you can have freedom of thought and expression. That’s our brand and identity that we want to create, too, as a development and technology company.”
Phase one groundbreaking is expected to take place within six to nine months, though office space construction will likely begin sooner. Building permits for the location have also been filed.
In the meantime, the painting will continue.
“There’s a very positive vibe that already exists there, and a lot of it has to do with what was allowed from the beginning,” Smith said.
“To just take that away and throw up something brand new, I don’t think that pays the right tribute to what it is. We want to respect that.”