An Urban Explorer

Meet Joseph Conrad Benner, Jr., founder of StreetsDept.com

By Jacqueline M. Mahon

Joseph Conrad Benner, Jr.

“It’s like going to a cemetery,” he says. “Solemn quiet is rare in the city.” We’re talking about the abandoned places he explores and photographs for his blog, StreetsDept.com. There, in the video interview “Wastelands,” his description of these ruins is elegiac: “beautiful, morbid, devastating, and inspiring.” He has a respectful sense of the past that haunts these places. As though any moment dusty, dead bulbs might flicker on to reveal fresh wallpaper, crisp desks or gleaming machinery, and bustling inhabitants.

This is 32-year-old Joseph Conrad Benner, Jr., of Fishtown born and raised — photographer, blogger, art curator, and activist. I’d discovered his work on Instagram and followed the trail to his many other ventures. We’re at the magnificent La Colombe on Frankford Avenue, which was once a warehouse and now features lattes on draft. Fortunately, Conrad had the presence of mind, despite his cold, to get on line like a proper patron, whereas my cold had me confusedly cutting in at the front. I recognized him by his trademark cap and knapsack, and stepping back to join him may have saved me from fisticuffs over coffee.

We’ve settled at a long communal table in the rear, by a kitchen of aproned bakers. I explain that I followed him on Instagram due to my own fascination with the disorder inflicted by time. “Images get inside people,” Conrad remarks. “They’re immediate.” I nod, imagining them bypassing billions of furiously humming neurons in the brain electrically charged to process, analyze, and file. Images are refreshing because they wend a different way.

Conrad also documents street art all over Philadelphia. Artists text him when they’ve finished a piece and he races off to photograph the wall, bridge underpass, fence, or whatever medium has served as the base. “This art is for the people,” he comments. It’s independent and self-governing. “And it’s ephemeral.” The elements instantly initiate decay, and time spells a fading. I think of the human desire over eons to leave a mark, of the medieval cathedrals in which stonemasons worked hidden monsters and scenes of iniquity.

Images are especially a relief these days, when ranting screeds proliferate and the competition for your attention has devolved into cacophony. Conrad walks to digest each day and allow space for new ideas, and it was during one such amble that he conceived the name for Signs of Solidarity. This public-art protest involved 30 banners with messages such as “Together As One,” “Hate Won’t Make Us Great,” and “Speak Up” unfurling around Philadelphia on inauguration day. He and co-organizers planned the event “in opposition to hate and in protest of any and all that embolden divisiveness.”

Conrad also heeded Grace Ahn’s post-election call, along with three co-organizers, to run a silent auction pre-emptively benefiting people and causes likely to suffer under the “increasingly dangerous, self-serving people of the new administration.” On January 14, 2017, Collective Action raised $23k with art donated by 160 Philadelphia-area artists “in a direct response to the election of Donald Trump.” The money went to 10 social-justice organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Planning for Collective Action 2.0 is underway. It will be a fundraising block party, featuring music, art, food, and drink, as well as a number of social-justice organizations distributing information and engaging with people, in the fall.

Other StreetsDept efforts have focused on homeless youth, in concert with Covenant House Pennsylvania, and protection of public assets such as Graffiti Pier, in that case teamed with United By Blue (an outdoor product company dedicated to conservation; check them out!).

StreetsDept.com is a purpose-driven blog. Conrad’s mastery of evolving technologies and social media combined with his photography and writing skills — plus hard work — produced a successful business. And he quickly recognized that his platform offered opportunities for civic activism and philanthropy. What is his business? “I’ll be an advertising partner, managing Twitter and Instagram accounts, allowing sponsored posts on my blog, using my connections to further a brand,” Conrad explains. He also curates art shows, offers tours of public art in Philly’s neighborhoods, consults with nonprofits, and sells prints of his photography (his primary love). “The job I had at 24 didn’t exist when I was 21,” he says. “You have to be super flexible.”

Flexibility and curiosity grew from a beginning rooted in Catholicism, with a brother 12 years older, a dad who installed fire alarms, and a mom who had various jobs including bank manager and assistant at Garrison’s Garage. Once a Catholic-schooled altar boy, Conrad is now agnostic. A reading pastime led to Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist and other philosophical explorations. But his thinking is regularly followed by action. “At 19 I saw a video on industrial farming,” he says. “I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.” Similarly, the understanding that much public art in Germany commemorates the victims of the Holocaust (“Never Forget”), while also challenging existing mores and encouraging a national dialogue, suggested a higher purpose. “Bike lanes, parks, artwork, piers — public spaces are assets,” he says. We can and should delight in them. But even more is possible: “Can our sharing of these things create empathy? Can we reflect on our own history, put ourselves in other people’s shoes?”

StreetsDept turned 6 years old in January. Long may it reign.