East Passyunk Crossing gets artsy


After four years of coordinated efforts, the SEPTA Substation at the corner of 13th and Mifflin streets now looks much nicer. Out are the sight of cracked window panes and dangling rusty green metal screens and in is a four-panel mural titled “East Passyunk: Crossing Through The Ages.”

The East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association guided the process, secured funding and permissions, sourced the imagery and commissioned artist Donna Backues to bring the designs together. The building dates back to 1913 and provides back-up power for the Broad Street Line.

“It looks so amazing,” Joseph F. Marino, the co-chair of the civic and resident of the 1900 block of South Jessup Street, said. “This is a combined effort from our board, and there was a lot of feedback from our membership — we’re really proud of this collaborative effort.”

Darren Fava, Marino’s co-chair and a resident of the 1100 block of Emily Street, was a key player, and he was able to use his professional skills to make the mural as historically accurate as possible.

“I work for Parks & Rec, and my background is in city planning. Some of what I do is related to signage and historic signage, but this is the biggest project I’ve worked on,” Fava, a 2011 South Philly Review Difference Maker, said. “We like to think that this is a definite enhancement of the building, bringing it into the 21st century.”

It began in ’11 when, as the civic’s website reports, “students from the University of Pennsylvania’s Planning Program did a study of East Passyunk Avenue and the surrounding East Passyunk neighborhood.” They identified the substation as a source of blight and envisioned a necessary update.

With a $10,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic development from Pennsylvania state Sen. Larry Farnese’s office, the team was two-thirds of the way to completion.

As Marino put it, the civic and its membership started brainstorming the best visual content for the mural.

“Why don’t we do the passage of time through the neighborhood and how about we use sepia because that was all the rage at the time the building was made? We got all these pieces to Donna Backues, and she started in on the vision,” Marino, a “life-timer” who lives in the home of his great grandparents, said.

Backues lives in the neighborhood, too, a resident of the 1800 block of South 10th Street. A Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alum and teaching artist, she was unnerved more by the process than the scope.

“It was very challenging because I had to learn to use Photoshop. I felt very nervous about the fact that these were going to be digitally produced,” she confessed. “But it is really exciting, and I love history. I was able to gather a lot of old photographs of immigrants, and I did a lot of reading about the kinds of people in the EP Crossing area.”

Each mural panel represents a different century and the people who called the area home at the time. The fifth panel, which symbolizes modern South Philly, hasn’t gone up yet — the Civic’s still raising money for its installation.

Window one represents pre-history through the 17th century and highlights the Lenni Lenape, the area’s first residents.

“We found photos that were considered most accurate,” Fava said. “We looked at images at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.”

Backues said she “researched animals that were indigenous to the area, like an otter and a turtle.”

Window two is the 18th century and is inspired by the wave of Swedish, Dutch and Finnish settlers that arrived in Philadelphia.

“I actually wanted to put the Moyamensing Prison in, but I couldn’t find enough images,” Backues said.

“The Swedes were the first Europeans to arrive here,” Fava added. “They’re depicted coming in a boat.”

The third window, the 19th century, takes on Moyamensing and Southwark, the villages that became part of the City of Philadelphia in 1854. This panel features Annunciation BVM Church, 1511 S. 10th St., when it had a full steeple.

“The area was just starting to be more populated,” Backues said.

It also includes a horse-drawn trolley that the civic’s site says “helped fuel rapid growth in the area.”

The last window, early 20th century South Philly, depicts an electric trolley and an influx of Italian immigrants. The fifth window, which has been designed but not installed, depicts a “SEPTA bus and a whole mix of folks from the neighborhood,” Fava said.

It’s a Route 23 bus, one Backues says she takes all the time and she included as “many ethnic groups as possible waiting to get on the bus and walking along the street.”

The mural panels went up shortly after the famous King of Jeans sign came down.

“I would like to think that ours will be equally embraced if not more so than the King of Jeans sign,” Fava mused.

Getting SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program on board helped guarantee safety and Fava says the latter was essential for insuring the art and the safety of pedestrians.

Right around the corner, EPX is gaining a new dance and movement space, too, with The Whole Shebang, 1813 S. 11th St. It’s a new creative hub that’s finishing up renovations with an entrance in the parking lot attached to Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, 1736 S. 10th St., and co-founded by partners Meg Foley and Carmichael Jones; Foley’s a dance artist who teaches at University of the Arts, and Jones is a visual artist with a residency at Temple’s Tyler School of Art.

Foley, Jones and classes coordinator Chelsea Murphy recently showed their work-in-progress with excitement. They’ll soon host space rentals and classes in a wide range of disciplines from barre fitness to yoga. They’ll also welcome international dance artists to create and perform in the heated-floored and springs-supported dance surface.

The space opens on Monday. Foley rubbed her swollen abdomen and said “this space is coming next week, and a baby is coming in July.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.