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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Philadelphia is known as the birthplace of America, the City of Brotherly Love, home of Rocky, the Eagles. It is less known for its murals. But there are thousands of them. It's hard to walk through Center City without passing a painting. They are there thanks to a concerted effort to beautify the city, build community and fight crime.

NPR's Lauren Silverman went to get a look.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: I'm standing in a parking lot in downtown Philadelphia, staring at a giant cement wall covered with small, bright tiles.

Ms. JANE GOLDEN (Executive Director, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program): It's a million pieces of Venetian glass is what you're seeing.

SILVERMAN: That's Jane Golden. She's the director of the city of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program.

In the last 26 years, she's helped convert over 3,000 walls into murals.

On a bright Saturday morning, she offered to show me around. Our first stop was this mural called "Legacy."

Ms. GOLDEN: We back up, and we see a girl.

SILVERMAN: What's she holding?

Ms. GOLDEN: She's holding the flame of liberty. And then around her neck, there are three medals. There's Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and then that is a medal from West Africa. And it's all about the dignity of the human spirit. And it's about, you know, resilience.

SILVERMAN: Since 1984, Golden has collaborated with school kids, cops, prisoners and the elderly to plan and paint murals. The first murals Golden painted with graffiti writers showed people that art in the city streets could be just as significant as art in galleries and museums. And it could be accessible to everyone.

Ms. GOLDEN: What I love about the outdoor art in this city is that it's like going through a museum, and you come up with your own personal interpretations. It moves you, it inspires you and it challenges you.

SILVERMAN: In 2004, leaders of a neighborhood called Mantua submitted an ambitious request. They wanted to paint murals on two apartment buildings that bordered a field trashed with glass shards and old tires. Today, the paintings are done, and the junk below has been replaced by a park.

Ms. GOLDEN: We got it cleaned up, so there's new playground equipment. There's a tree...

SILVERMAN: Turning Philadelphia into an outdoor art museum has even attracted developers.

Ms. GOLDEN: They feel that it's safer to build in Mantua. So I look over here and I see new housing. And I look down the street and see new housing. And while I know that what we're doing isn't a solution for all that is wrong with the city, I want to say that murals show us the catalytic role that art can play in healing a city.

SILVERMAN: People repeatedly told Golden the murals wouldn't last, that they would just get covered with graffiti again. But only a few have ever been defaced. The bigger challenge is getting everyone on the same page.

Ms. GOLDEN: What's controversial to one community may not be to another community. So, yes, we have run into projects that have been difficult, complicated, have stirred up acrimony. One project, we had to bring in a Quaker mediator.

SILVERMAN: Communities sometimes works years on a mural without any guarantee it won't get covered up or torn down. Golden has seen a handful of her murals disappear over the years, but she understands murals are in a constant state of flux, just like the city.

Ms. MEG SALIGMAN (Lead Mural Artist, "The Evolving Face of Nursing"): This piece the lighter installed at the top of the building. And the portions of the painting that are painted in color are going to have color LED lights on.

SILVERMAN: That's Meg Saligman. She's the lead artist of a new mural called "The Evolving Face of Nursing."

Ms. SALIGMAN: And when you shine colored light on colored paint, it can appear, disappear, change colors. So this will be, in the evening, an animated mural.

SILVERMAN: The 6,000-square-foot painting features faces of Philadelphia nurses. Is that just someone that's looking at it?

Ms. SALIGMAN: Yeah. He's either looking at it or going to pee on it. I'm not sure which.

SILVERMAN: Actually, he was just one of hundreds of people that visit the murals each week. Golden has recently created an audio tour for the visitors. This October, the Mural Arts Program will unveil dozens of new murals. In the meantime, Golden is busy hunting for more walls.

Ms. GOLDEN: Well, that wall is on our waiting list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOLDEN: I love that wall. Isn't that a great wall?

SILVERMAN: Lauren Silverman, NPR News.

Ms. GOLDEN: ...so it's a nice surface. No discernable leaks in the roof and...

(Soundbite of music)

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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