Through mural, a community remembers

Artist creates mural to serve as memorial to the soon-to-be demolished Norris Homes community.

Cinovia Williams, a tenant at the Norris Homes, enjoys the mural which will represent the Norris Homes from 1953 to 2017. | Margo Reed TTN
Cinovia Williams, a tenant at the Norris Homes, enjoys the mural which will represent the Norris Homes from 1953 to 2017. | Margo Reed TTN

A brick townhome is painted on the overpass’s concrete wall. Only a window and a roof appear on the closest of the smaller concrete slabs lining the hill. The slab behind it reveals even less, creating a ghostly illusion of homes disappearing into the overgrown grass and nearby train tracks.

Or so goes artist Jennie Shanker’s vision for a mural at Norris and 10th streets. The work is a memorial to the soon-to-be demolished Norris Homes community, which has stood on 11th and Berks Streets since the early 1950s.

As part of a $30 million CHOICE Neighborhood Improvement Grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the old public housing units will be torn down.

On the Norris Homes site, the area of Diamond Street to the north, Marshall Street to the east, Marvine Street from the west and Berks Street to the south , the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to build 267 new mixed-income housing units in partnership with other groups like the Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha and the Norris Homes resident council.

“About five years of work is being completed,” said Michael Johns, senior executive vice president of capital projects and development at the PHA, at a community meeting on June 29, a recording of which was provided to The Temple News. The work is being done in five phases, starting in December 2015. The expected final completion date is October 2020.

By that time, the original Norris Homes buildings will be gone.

Shanker believes in preserving the community’s memories through her project, which encompasses a mural, web archive and “yearbook” of Norris Homes residents. She hopes to complete the mural, supported by the Mural Arts Open Source, by the end of August.

“I’m an adjunct at Temple,” Shanker said. “Gentrifying this community has a lot to do with the place where I work. There’s a certain amount of responsibility around that.”

Shanker has always wanted to work with communities, she said, but it was never feasible before Open Source. The project brings in 14 artists—local, national and international—to do projects in Philadelphia communities with “an open source idea.”

Artists set up some structure, Shanker said, but then allow the community to have a hand in the project and where it goes. Initially, Shanker said the neighborhood was resistant to trust her.

“Before she even started to do interviews or really even plan the mural, [Shanker] knew she had to become a person that people trusted in the community,” said Monica Campana, Open Source’s project manager. “I’ve seen her in action, and it’s quite inspiring.”

And now Shanker has that trust, which means the community is bringing her ideas of where to take the project next, like a roundtable conversation between residents of all ages captured on video.

“That’s really exciting for me,” Shanker said. “When the community learns that they can use us for the types of conversations they want to have themselves.”

Currently, the residents of Norris Homes are having a conversation about what sense of community they have left once dispersed over the larger area of PHA’s building plan, and how to hold onto memories once the brick townhouses are gone.

“I think [Shanker’s] going to give people a sense of being,” said Donna Richardson, the Norris Homes resident council president. “Instead of wiping away their whole history, they feel like they’re part of this new relocation and buildings and all the different landscapes.”

Richardson, who’s lived in this community for 26 years, said buildings have always come up around Norris Homes, but the residents never felt as though “it had anything to do with them.”

“But now they have a part,” Richardson said. “[The mural] is a piece of them that will stay.”

And not just the mural, Richardson said, but also Shanker’s web archive, which will feature photos, videos and sound clips of community members, as well as old photos provided by residents. People will be able to go through the archive years from now, and “even show their children the story behind it,” Richardson said.

“Jennie’s work is important,” said Karen Lee, a Norris Homes resident for the past 15 years. “It’s called memories. Those are important. From where we are to where we’re going. We want to be able to remember.”

The redevelopment and relocation has been a growing experience, Richardson said, and she’s watched the community turn around positively, fighting for what they want in PHA meetings, where before, “they just didn’t seem to care.”

And the community isn’t disappearing—it’s moving. All Norris Homes residents have a right to return, according to Jones. Each existing household that wishes to return, provided the household was leased compliant at the time of departure, will have guaranteed replacement units.

“Part of the goal of the CHOICE neighborhood implementation activity is to minimize the amount of stress of public housing residents that live currently on the site,” Jones said. “That’s why it’s 100 percent a right for them to return.”

One question remains for Shanker: if new people move into an existing community, even one that is expanding, is there a way that newcomers can learn about the community already in place?

“This is a community that was once lost but is now found,” Richardson said. “The community is taking great pride in itself, and they’re passing it down. That’s a beautiful thing, when people take pride instead of shame.”

Victoria Mier can be reached at

Eamon Dreisbach contributed reporting.

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