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It’s The End of An Era: The 5th and Bainbridge Freewall Is Dead; Long Live the Philly Freewall

June 16, 2019

This weekend marks the end of an era in Philadelphia, truly. The construction wall that stood for three years at the corner of 5th and Bainbridge streets in Queen Village and served as a defacto freewall space for Philly artists began to come down on Friday. Installed around a new build that seems to have stalled for a while but which is now nearing completion, that construction wall did what a lot of our city’s abandoned buildings and construction walls do: it became a space for street art. But as most street artists and street art lovers would likely attest, this wall in particular seemed to stand apart from the rest. And as it’s removed from the landscape this weekend, I propose that any of those like myself who are interested in art, artists, and the public space take a big lesson away from the years-long success of this wall.

Outdoor, free and accessible at anytime day or night, and completely un-curated, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that for the last three years the 5th and Bainbridge freewall has served as one of our city’s more interesting and experimental art spaces. If you’re not familiar with that word, “freewall” is the general term for a wall whose owner permits street artists or graffiti writers to use it. These types of permitted free spaces are as you might imagine super rare, and they can take many different forms.

In the case of 5th and Bainbridge, that permission was decidedly loose and nearly nonverbal in where the building owner and construction folks who worked on the new building would not stop any artists they saw installing. And it seems they never, or rarely, buffed the wall or called the city for the wall to be buffed either. I was even out shooting an install at 5th and Bainbridge with Joe Boruchow in July of 2016 when a team of people came out of the building, looked Joe up and down, then just asked him questions about his art before letting him finish his installation and going back to work themselves. (To be clear, I can not speak for every artist’s experience installing or trying to install at this intersection over the last three year, only what I have heard from artists and saw for myself, and generally this hands off approach was the vibe.)

We live in the city of murals. We have a few of the country’s best art schools. We have countless artists living and thriving here and countless more a quick bus or train ride away. Yet if you want to create in the public space, it can be a big challenge, even impossible, to find the right avenues to do that. Murals take money, walls, and in a lot of cases neighborhood approvals. Public art takes even more money and requires a slew more permits and permissions. Street art, non-commissioned art in the public space, of course doesn’t ask permission and can be done at a super low cost.

It’s one of the reasons I love street art; it’s the artist talking directly with their audience without the filter of curators, galleries, museums, or funders. Because of its directness and ultimately its ephemerality, street art can speak to the moment more immediately and in ways that other forms of art in the public space often can’t. It can even be used as a tool for protest or to question the status quo. A number of artists, for example, have used street art and 5th and Bainbridge to bring attention to street harassment. Street artists have used 5th and Bainbridge to talk about climate change, gun violence, voting, Trump and Rizzo, the future, their fellow artists, and countless other topics. In fact a couple of weeks after the election of Donald Trump, 5th and Bainbridge was one of the first spots I hit up to see how people were feeling, and the wall did not disappoint. More recently, an artist new to street art experimented with a wheatpaste celebrating all of the Democratic women elected to congress in the 2018 Elections; that wheatpaste, by the way, was ultimately Instagrammed by one of those newly elected congresswomen, Ilhan Omar!

While street art (and its forebearer graffiti) are certainly not going anywhere, thankfully, no matter what happens to an intersection in Queen Village, the 5th and Bainbridge freewall offered something really, really special that we should pay attention to. Due to its generally centralized location in Philly, it being just a block from the foot traffic of South Street and around the corner from Philadelphia’s own officially unofficial museum of street art Tattooed Mom, as well as it being a fairly long wall with lots of space for artists to not go over each other, whatever the secret sauce 5th and Bainbridge ended up attracting old and new artists alike and regularly. Long working street artists found it a reliable place to put up with impunity; newer artists and artists finding it impossible to break into the gallery scene used it as a space to experiment. There was always something new to see at 5th and Bainbridge. This is the kind of creative placemaking most city’s would dream about, and it happened in Philly organically.

What do I make of all of this? Well, I’m of two minds currently. Part of me says fuck it, another 5th and Bainbridge will happen again, and it will. But then there’s another part of me that says fuck it, we need to inspire our city’s leaders, arts organizations and funders, to build a permanent freewall space in the city. Love Park, The Parkway, that (now) temporary construction wall on the Kelly Drive side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that’s currently covered in posters of famous artworks found inside the PMA, there’s so many places this could happen. And so many reasons it should. I mean, damn, the entire eight year history of this blog and the street artists and street art we’ve documented and celebrated in that time are a reason it should.

For those interested in the how, I think the structure itself would be fairly easy to create and its specifics would depend on the site. Just build it and let the wall (or walls, on the right site a large triangle shape could be interesting) fill up with art. Document it regularly for the archives (I’m happy to do this, obviously) and every month or quarter/season repaint the wall and start from scratch. You could even do what we did with the temporary Temple Libraries freewall we created for the Philly Public Arts Forum and install a small plaque next to the wall with two simple rules: 1) Don’t go over anyone else’s work unless the whole wall is full, then go over the oldest or most damaged looking piece. 2) Anything deemed hateful or offensive will be removed.

Over the course of just a few hours yesterday I received four texts and three Instagram messages all from different artists telling me they either saw or heard that the 5th and Bainbridge freewall was finally coming down. Many of us suspected it would be happening soon as construction on the building behind it seemed to be coming to an end over the last few weeks. This wall has been valued my so many.

While 5th and Bainbridge’s time has come, smart city leaders and city planners, in my opinion, should see how beloved it became and work to understand and support that and the population that created it. It’s not everyday that a city is brimming with talented, eager artists ready to create and just looking for a space to show off their skills. Why not give Philly artists the space they deserve? Why not cultivate this? Maybe it’s time to build a Philly Freewall. The 5th and Bainbridge freewall is dead; long live the Philly Freewall!

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In honor of the late 5th and Bainbridge freewall, here’s a list of every post I can find of artwork from that wall:
Harleqvin Comments on New Developments in Queen Village
Donald Trump and Frank Rizzo Similarities Spark Trio of New Wheatpastes by Artist Joe Boruchow
Faiths Fun and Bear 215 Want You to Live in the Moment
Philly Street Artists Collaborate on Climate Change-focused Wheatpaste
‘Stop Telling Women To Smile’ Installations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Pop-Up in Queen Village
New Wheatpaste Series Alert: LOVE This!
Philly Street Artist Joe Boruchow Installs “VOTE” Wheatpastes Around Town
The Words of Philly Artists Are Being Honored in A New Wheatpaste Series
New WRDSMTH Street Art Series Created with TOMS Shoes Urges Congress to Pass Universal Background Checks on Guns
Interviews with Street Artists: A Chat with Inphltrate
New Philly Street Artist Installs Wheatpaste Celebrating the Women Who Ran for Office in 2018
Dreamy New Yarnbomb from Lace in the Moon in Queen Village
Desiree Guinn Wheatpastes “The Future” in Queen Village
New Wheatpaste from Kimi Tallant in Queen Village

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