Adding color to a dark part of town

Mural Arts Program eyes adding art to Belgrade Street tunnel.

DESIGN: BRAD CARNEY / RENDERING: MURAL ARTS

By Lindsey Nolen

The tunnel on Belgrade Street between Somerset Street and Lehigh Avenue in Port Richmond has a reputation as being a popular “dump site.” Yet, in an attempt to deter negative behaviors and to increase security throughout the underpass, the city’s Mural Arts Program will add color and creativity to the concrete landscape with a new abstract flower mural.

Describing this project as a “quickie,” President of the Olde Richmond Civic Association Don Gould explained this mural is not designed to be a long-term solution for the tunnel. Rather, it is to be used as an intermediate solution before a grant can be obtained from the city that will enable the organization to implement increased safety measures, such as more lights and security cameras, and more permanent designs.

“The problem is [the Belgrade tunnel] can be a very scary place for people to walk through, especially at night, and people drop their trash there,” Ted Cox, who lives next to the underpass at 2534 Somerset St., said. “It’s been this way for decades, but I love the idea of the mural and more improvements to the tunnel.”

“I’m in support of anything that is helping to make the area safer,” Madeline Tallas, another local resident, added.

Robyn Buseman, restorative justice program director for the Mural Arts Program, explained her involvement with the proposed mural began when the tunnel was brought to her group’s attention by Councilman Allan Domb. He offered to provide a personal donation that would allow the mural to be painted at no cost to the association or neighbors. Ultimately, his $10,000 donation will go toward paying for the labor and the primers needed to paint the wall, which is located near the restaurant Bait & Switch, of which Domb is a partner and owns the real estate.

“I’m cleaning up the underbridge because it’s disgusting, was like a dumping ground and wasn’t well lit,” Domb said. “Yeah, I am a partner at Bait & Switch, but i don’t think it’s going to make any major change in the traffic it gets. I’m doing it because, frankly, I’m embarrassed by its condition and want to help the neighborhood.”

If the underpass is not painted, the donated funds will be returned to the councilman and would not be usable for any other projects or initiatives. This “all-or-nothing” stipulation has led community members to support the project, with the thought being that it can only improve the tunnel’s situation.

“It was [Domb’s] idea to get something up on the walls that looks nice quickly,” Buseman said. “We [at the Mural Arts Program] work with guys who are on probation and who are on reentry, and they will be available to help prime and paint the walls with the artist.”

Also helping to cut costs and make this project possible, leftover paint from the Mural Arts Program’s work on the Eakin’s Oval last July will be utilized. The paints are all pre-made colors, so, even if the artist and laborers run out of the leftover pant, more can be easily purchased.

Aside from running out of paint, local residents such as Brian White, president of the Friends of Cione, have expressed concerns about what will become of the mural if it becomes graffitied. According to Gould, the tunnel is sprayed with graffiti at least three times a week.

“I don’t know with the tunnel being where it’s at if it will get graffitied or not,” Buseman said. “We’ll try to send a crew out if it does get graffitied, but we have to cover the whole city with one crew made up of three people. I can’t promise someone will be down here if it gets graffitied every day.”

She explained another issue with the mural’s location is moisture behind the tunnel, meaning the crew will have to apply extra primer to ensure the paint adheres. However, the artist, Brad Carney, has made sure to keep the design simple so it can be painted directly on the wall, rather than on parachute cloth, which is more time consuming and wouldn’t stick on the wall directly.

“Again, it’s a temporary solution. That way, [the Olde Richmond Civic Association] can get the lights in and security, while we hope to make [the area] look better and feel better in the neighborhood,” Buseman said. “We could probably get it done by the end of June, it’s a simple design.”

In moving forward, and at the request of Councilman Mark Squilla, if obtained, a $300,000 grant will allow for the larger project involving the development a mural theme that ties in each of the neighborhood’s tunnels from Everett Street to Thompson Street, as well as to install additional LED lighting fixtures and security systems in each, all to be completed by summer 2018.

“We’re going to pick a design that we want for each tunnel, not abstract, but something artistic,” Gould said. “The graffitiers won’t tag on something artistic. I don’t know about abstract, and you’ll still have knuckleheads, but I don’t think it’ll be as bad if we come up with nice designs for each tunnel.”