City Life

Land Sale Leaves Arts Oasis in Limbo

June 27, 2023 | by Kyle Bagenstose

Sunflower Philly was a popular community events space and garden in Olde Kensington that opened during the pandemic. Operations have ceased in 2023 after the parcel was sold. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

Even in deserted landscapes, flowers can bloom. Their colors pop, they energize the local inhabitants, and for a time turn barren spaces lovely. But in the end, they inevitably wilt away. Has that time finally come for Sunflower Philly and the rest of the art that blossoms at the crossroads of 5th Street, Cecil B. Moore, and Germantown Avenues?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the graffiti artists of Philadelphia– the city where the modern form of the art was born– began to flock to the enticing old security walls of this triangular shaped block to perform their craft. By varying accounts it’s been at least decades, perhaps approaching half a century. They were certainly there before the development boom that started in Northern Liberties in the early aughts that spread through Fishtown, Kensington, and into this vortex of neighborhoods.

But the walls are now being closed in. Lofts, apartments, and other new construction has surrounded the block in recent years. In 2018, a developer made plans to build big there too: two apartment buildings, connected by a bridge, with 138 units and 52,000 square feet of retail space. A party hosted by rapper and Bucks County native Asher Roth was held to say goodbye to the walls. Artists were happy just to hear that developer Chadwick Smith promised to incorporate new spaces for graffiti and other art into the complex.

The walls had been a “a staple to graffiti culture worldwide,” artist Christian “TameArtz” Rodriguez told PhillyVoice at the time. But the originals, at least, were coming down. Or were they? In the ensuing years after COVID-19 struck, development stalled, and, like a stubborn desert rose, Sunflower Philly bloomed instead. Adding even more artistic flair at the sharply acute northern angle of the block, Roth and a cadre of other locals teamed up with Smith to launch the new event space. Within just a few years it became the local belle of the ball, a place where both old-time artists, residents, and the newly arrived transplants could gather to hear live music, take salsa lessons and painting classes, or just hang out and sip beer. “We started becoming a real community name,” said Melvin Powell, a former event organizer and executive director for Sunflower Philly. “We became a staple.”

All is quiet at Sunflower Philly this summer. The future use and development of the large parcel remains uncertain. | Photos: Kyle Bagenstose

Powell says the original deal was that Sunflower Philly could do its thing until it was time to finally shut it down and break ground on development. But the times at Sunflower Philly were so good, he said, they began to dream that just maybe the plot was getting too hot to drop. It was pretty much the last open space around, offering a flash of natural and artistic life. Real estate agents were even pitching it as a local asset. “We believed in the space and were hoping to eventually get to a point where they couldn’t take [it] away,” Powell said.

Then just like that, the flower wilted. Exactly what went wrong is a matter of much innuendo and speculation, but after a bustling summer last year, Sunflower Philly has gone defunct in 2023. Its calendar is empty and website kaput. Then came news in March that the Sunflower Philly plot had changed hands, from Smith to developer James Maransky, who City records show also now owns an adjacent plot on the eastern side of the block.

Maransky confirmed in an email that he purchased the lot with the “intention of developing it in the future,” but added that “no plans have been developed thus far so nothing to report.” Smith, who records show still owns a parcel that takes up the majority of the block and houses the long-standing graffiti walls, did not return requests for comment.

Among those close to the situation, few are willing to speak publicly, for fear they could upset the wrong person in a sensitive dynamic where the future remains up in the air.

To Powell, the writing is on the wall. “I think that the neighborhood is going to be very upset and shocked when Sunflower eventually turns into apartments,” he said. “This really used to be a true community space that unfortunately succumbed to gentrification and developers.”

A Philadelphia History: Graffiti Edition

Graffiti artists Darryl McCray (aka Cornbread) and Leonard Ferguson in 1975. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Which city lays proper claim to the provenance of contemporary graffiti art is yet another thing that Philadelphians and New Yorkers can fight over. But Philly has an ace up its sleeve: Darryl “Cornbread” McCray.

Born in Brewerytown in 1953, multiple histories of contemporary graffiti name McCray as the first modern artist of the form. During a stint in a juvenile correction center as a teenager, McCray was shacked up with gang members who used graffiti to mark their territory, according to a 2010 Philadelphia City Paper article lost to the internet, but shared through email by its author Emily Currier.

Nicknamed “Cornbread” for his incessant pestering of the facility’s cook for the scrumptious side, McCray had an audacious idea: he’d tag his moniker on the walls too, just for the hell of it. And when he left the facility, Cornbread just kept on tagging, leaving his mark throughout Brewerytown and other North Philadelphia neighborhoods, and, most notoriously, an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo. In doing so, he gave birth to a trend that soon permeated controversially throughout the city, New York, and then the rest of the world.

“It’s a culture that Philadelphia started and walked away from,” Cornbread told Currier in 2010. “When I go to New York, I am well-received, well-received, much loved. I don’t get that here in Philadelphia.”

Top: Graffiti tags cover a wall in 69th Street Transportation Center in 1971. Bottom: Graffiti artist Pretty Boy standing next to his tag in 1976. | Photos courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Still, McCray’s influence can be seen throughout his native city. Most visibly, a city-lead anti-graffiti campaign that he helped advise eventually lead to the creation of the Mural Arts program. But, more abstractly, the artistic seeds he planted led to the establishment of certain graffiti hot spots around Philadelphia where artists have for decades painted with impunity or even permission from owners. And the walls at 5th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue are among the most storied.

Rather than just simple tags, the walls have long been adorned with truly intricate and even emotional pieces. Dueling artists have duked it out with Star Wars-themed works before collaborating. A ten-foot memorial to the victims of Sandy Hook went up in 2012. Even New Yorkers couldn’t help but make trips to see the amazing art on display at Philly’s “Graffiti Mecca.”

Exactly when it all began is unclear. Rodriguez told PhillyVoice in 2018 he’d been at it for 20 years, dating the origins at least into the late 1990s. Less substantiated accounts push it into the 1980s. Either way, Powell said the property became “one of the first curated walls in the graffiti community in Philadelphia.”

In New York City, the destruction of a similar venue in 2014 resulted in a lawsuit and legal victory that indicated perhaps America had elevated certain graffiti destinations to something worth protecting. But what will become of the Philadelphia landmark?

Changing Hands, Changing Lands

The wall of a commercial building that was demolished in 2017 is now used as an outdoor canvas for graffiti artists. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

Records and images show the largest parcel on the southern end of the block, which contains the walls, was as late as 2004 owned by Carmic Manufacturing Co., listed on Bloomberg as an architectural metalwork manufacturer. The property then appeared to pass into the hands of developers, with a plan to build 37 units surfacing in 2007, but never coming to pass. That year the property was owned by Graffiti Pyramid LLC, which records show is connected to Chadwick Smith. A dilapidated commercial building on the property was demolished in 2017, leaving only the outer security walls and their graffitied facades remaining.

Living Elements LLC, another Smith-connected outfit, had already snatched up several other parcels on the block, which records show had previously contained a variety of blighted mixed-use buildings that were declared imminently dangerous and torn down in the late 2000s. Smith’s consolidation of the parcels, totaling about an acre, cleared the way for his plans for the large-scale, mixed-use complex announced in 2018, under the banner of Flow Development & Technology, a self-described “altruistic, value-oriented real estate development and technology company.”

But Powell and others said Smith also appeared open to the entreaties of artistic types after meeting on the sidelines of community meetings. His promise to devote a space in the new development for artists to continue their work drew praise. And as the northern end of the property was dug out in preparation for the new construction’s foundation, it created a recessed, shady area ideal for escaping from summer heat. That sparked another idea. “Everyone gravitated over toward there, and I remember Chad seeing it and going ‘Oh, we’re not going to be able to do anything on this space for a while,’” Powell said.

Thus, Sunflower Philly was born, formalized as a nonprofit, with Smith listed as principal officer and Sunflower’s website listing Roth, Powell, and Rodriguez among its board members. The space found its stride during the pandemic, when its laissez-faire and open air attributes made it among the first and few places in that section of the city where people could once again get out of the house and go do something in public. In 2021, Powell said, the venue hosted upwards of 100 events.

Where things began to go south and why is unclear, with few verifiable details. Powell, the only one close to the action who made himself available for an on-the-record interview, says he was asked to resign from his role with Sunflower Philly in the summer of 2022 and hasn’t been involved since.

Sunflower Philly’s flower garden is left untended. | Photo: Kyle Bagenstose

In March, City property records show Smith sold the parcel and another on the block for $1.4 million to 5th Street and Germantown Avenue, a Maransky-connected LLC. Maransky is also president of E-Built, Inc., the development firm notably behind the Ice House Condominiums in Fishtown and the Gotham Hosiery adaptive reuse project in Kensington.

But with Maransky mum on future plans and Smith silent– City property records show he still owns the largest parcel on the block that contains the graffiti walls via Graffiti Pyramid– the future of both communal spaces remains uncertain. Commercial real estate website Berkadia claims plans for 92 new units on the graffiti property, but whether that is an early leak of information or an inaccuracy is currently unverifiable.

On the west side of the block is a third plot, a three-story mixed-use structure originally owned by a Michie Textile Co., but that was later converted into apartments and a commercial space currently used by art gallery Pilot Projects. Owners of the parcel did not respond to requests for comment, but City records show they received a permit in May for Airbnb-type uses for an upstairs unit that was previously an apartment.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source close to Sunflower Philly said there are still hopes among those that love the space that some form of long-term viability can be won. But those individuals are also uncertain whether it is wiser to publicly advocate for the space’s historic and contemporary value to the community or try and work quietly with developers.

Powell said he has already moved on with a lesson in hand. He isn’t sure that a space like Sunflower Philly could ever make enough money to satisfy owners in an area of the city where development is hot and land values are rising.

Instead, he is now working as chair of the vacant land working group for nonprofit Circular Philadelphia, developing policy ideas to make it easier for organizations like Sunflower Philly to become the legal owners of vacant lots so that they can both build community spaces and control their long-term destinies. “Community ownership is just so important,” Powell said. “The City agencies and developers can make great promises, but, unless the community or these nonprofit organizations actually have ownership of the land, they are always going to be susceptible.”


About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

One Comment:

  1. Maureen Prewitt says:

    I watched this lot transition from dumping ground to a beautiful performance space. It really was inspired. Too bad it can’t continue to be used for this until excavation begins. What a loss!

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