Not long ago, a dark alley in South Philly called Percy Street was the kind of place where people were afraid to walk at night. It’s brightly lit now, but not because of streetlights: Houses in the alley are plastered in glowing street art.
“It was about making this a safe area, but also making it an area people want to walk down, and sort of liven up the area,” says lighting designer Drew Billiau, who collaborated with artist David Guinn on the installation. “When people are there, it’s safer. And as more people show up it becomes even more safe.”
The alley is around the corner from bars and iconic cheesesteak restaurants, and near quiet residential streets. But until the street art was installed, it was a common place for prostitution, underage drinking, and dumping trash.
Some of the neighbors had been interested in adding street art to the area for a few years, and after a chance meeting with mural artist David Guinn (who happened to have a Knight Grant for another location that became impossible to use after construction), the plan moved forward.
Most people on the block weren’t quite ready to volunteer their walls for the installation, but two neighboring houses wanted to participate. “We concentrated on these two houses, and just put all of our energy and efforts into coming up with that design,” says Billiau. “It was sort of a seed project, so other neighbors who weren’t so sure about it could see it and say, ‘can we have this on our house now?’ Which they are.”
Their goal now is to expand the artwork down the whole alley, continuing with brightly-colored murals that people can look at during the day, and bright LED lights–which mimic neon, in an energy-efficient way–at night. (The lights are turned off at midnight, so that neighbors can get some sleep.)
Though studies have shown that streetlights don’t necessarily make streets safer, the art project seems to be helping, at least anecdotally. “When we first started installing it a month ago, every day there’d be used condoms on the ground, it was just disgusting back there,” Billiau says. “Since this thing has been up, that area is not used that way anymore.”
Other neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and other cities, have started approaching the artists to do the same thing. “I think other neighborhoods that have similar situations can add this in,” he says. “It can only improve things.”
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