Love Letters to Philadelphia: Gendering an urban brand (Part 1)

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Founded in 1984 to combat graffiti, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program replaced tags and bubble letters with larger-than-life murals that were designed collaboratively by community members and professional artists, becoming one of the most influential public arts organizations of its kind. Since that time, more than 3,000 murals—memorializing famous Philadelphians, commemorating immigration and migration stories, and acknowledging groups ranging from veterans to people with disabilities—have put a visual face on many neighborhoods, identifying and crystallizing their unique character.[1]

streetscape with mural

“Daycare and Carfare” by Stephen Powers. (Photo by Adam Wallacavage, used with permission of the Mural Arts Program)

Yet, out of all of these, the most popular mural project, according to the Mural Arts Program, has been “Love Letters,” a series of 50 rooftop murals completed in 2010 that “collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood.” Stretching through West Philadelphia and visible mainly from the elevated train, the murals, created by former graffiti artist and Philadelphia native Stephen Powers, use short phrases, like “if you were here I’d be home now,” or “we share sheets,” combined with simple graphics, or rebus puzzles, to express vaguely romantic desire. Taken together the numbered images form a series that literally makes love loom over a neighborhood where the El casts deep shadows on sidewalks fronted by dollar stores and shuttered windows.

murals on wall

“If You Were Here, I’d Be Home By Now” by Stephen Powers. (Photo by Adam Wallacavage, used with permission of the Mural Arts Program)

Even though mural projects have become commonplace, the Love Letter murals have received national media attention. Even before they were completed, the PBS Newshour reported on their success: “Philadelphia’s Love Letter Murals Spark Neighborhood Revival,” read the article’s headline, a premature judgment in a neighborhood that still deals with high crime rates, poverty and massive disinvestment. Where does love fit into an urban area like West Philadelphia? In this post, I’d like to consider how the Love Letter murals are representative of a larger trend in the marketing and branding of places, using a gendered analysis that will locate this within the context of economic development.

Long before the Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia was a city branded with love—its name, of course, translating to “City of Brotherly Love.” Penn’s evocative phrase suggests more of a civic love, in which shared responsibilities bind people to each other in a reciprocal relationship. Tourism, however, changes how love is used in place-based marketing. By 1969, Virginia began successfully using the slogan “Virginia is for Lovers,” creating an image of the state as a place where people could express their love for each other. The location is merely backdrop.

mural on wall

“See Me Like I See You” by Stephen Powers. (Photo by Adam Wallacavage, used with permission of the Mural Arts Program)

But the trend of encouraging individuals to feel love for a place came to fruition in New York City’s 1977 “I Love NY” campaign. The timing of New York’s sloganeering was not accidental. As Miriam Greenberg shows in Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, the urban crisis of the 1970s led to the famous campaign as the city sought to change its image from one of danger, poverty, crime, and sleaze. I Love NY helped to accomplish that, personalizing the city by turning love into an act between the individual and the place, while offering an eye-catching typewriter font connected to a easily understood image of a red heart that told nothing specific about the city at all.[2]

New York City’s success in rebranding caused other cities to follow suit. The circle came around as Philadelphia claimed “The City That Loves You Back” as its marketing mantra in 1997, a move away from earlier campaigns’ emphasis on the city’s historic landmarks. While not explicitly created for the purpose of tourism, the Love Letter murals should be seen in light of these trends.

As all of this talk of love suggests, cities are gendered spaces. Richardson Dilworth, professor of public policy at Drexel University, has argued that, during the late 19th century moment when many American cities annexed surrounding areas, the discourse was often one of love and marriage in which the larger city was always the groom. Indeed, when Manhattan annexed Brooklyn, it was described as a “forced marriage!”[3] However, I would argue that contemporary tourism discourse around cities has switched the gendering, in part to counter the urban crisis image of cities as places that are unsafe and inhospitable to outsiders. As Steve Macek shows, the consistent depiction of cities in 1970s and 1980s movies as places where women were threatened with violence suggests that these places were paradigmatically thought of as male (and, increasingly, as nonwhite).[4]

In contemporary branding discourse, however, cities are softened, made feminine, ready to be loved by the debonair and worldly tourist.[5] To be “tourism ready” requires that cities be welcoming, friendly, flirtatious, and, therefore, lovable. But this is not the civic “love” with which William Penn would have been comfortable. Rather than a feeling of kinship, this love is more a whirlwind romance, or, at worst, a dysfunctional marriage, in which one party (the tourist) controls all the money, while the other (the city) acts like the faded Southern belle in a Tennessee Williams’ play—covering up with cosmetics and the right lighting. Is this what the Love Letter murals do with their vibrant colors and curious phrases?

It makes me wonder if the love in the Love Letters murals is actually what West Philadelphia needs. The nebulous relationship between a piece of public art and economic development makes it hard to judge success or failure, but it’s worth noting that West Philadelphia’s media image remains largely negative. Would that neighborhood–and our cities in general–be better served by a less individualized vision than romantic love between two people, one closer to the concept of civitas?

It could also be argued, though, that if these murals lift locals’ spirits and help to convince the residents of other Philadelphia neighborhoods and the surrounding suburbs that West Philadelphia is not a no-man’s land, but part of the larger city, they are accomplishing something positive in a contemporary moment in which we often live in fear of each other. The larger goal of the project may be neither civitas nor romantic love, but a self-esteem boost from a creative, whimsical make-over that is seen as adding value to the neighborhood. Clara Williams, a resident involved in the project, says that people tell her that the murals are “good, it looks good. I like that it’s about love because things needs to be positive.”

To further address the question of to whom these love letters are addressed and how they are understood by visitors, I’ll be writing a second post in which I’ll describe my experiences on one of the Mural Arts Program’s weekend Love Letters mural tours.

~ Mary Rizzo

[1] See, for example, the mural that adorns the side of the William Way LGBT Community Center, called “Pride and Progress” and which depicts an intergenerational, multiracial vision of Philadelphia’s gay community within a neighborhood known as the Gayborhood.
[2] Miriam Greenberg. Branding New York: How A City in Crisis Was Sold to the World (NY: Routledge, 2008). The post-September 11, 2001 I Love NY image, with the plume of black smoke in the lower corner adds the specificity of place that the original lacks.
[3] Dilworth made this point during a public discussion of tourism as part of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
[4] Steve Macek. Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
[5] I discuss this in the case of the Baltimore neighborhood, Hampden, in “The Café Hon: White Working-Class Femininity and Commodified Nostalgia in Postindustrial Baltimore,” in Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South, edited by Anthony Stanonis (University of Georgia Press, 2008).

  1. John Majewski says:

    I found this to be a fascinating post. In the nineteenth century, railroad promoters sometimes gendered space as well, seeing the railroad as a “marriage” of two cities or two regions. Here is how South Carolinian Robert Hayne promoted a railroad between Cincinnati and Charleston in 1836: “The South and the West—We have published the banns—if any one know aught why these two should not be joined together, let him speak now, or forever hold his peace.” Hayne’s didn’t make it clear which region was the husband and which region was the wife.

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