By Jason Villemez
PHILADELPHIA — The mural on 204 S. 12th Street honoring the legacy of LGBTQ pioneer Gloria Casarez was painted over on Dec. 23. The building and the surrounding complex, which includes the former 12th Street Gym as well as the Henry Minton House (a former home to Black abolitionists) is being demolished to make way for a 31-story residential building.
A coalition of activists from the LGBTQ community, African-American community, and allies and neighbors had been petitioning the developer, Midwood Investment & Development, to save or preserve the mural, but the efforts were unsuccessful. The mural was created in 2015 by artist Michelle Angelina Ortiz and Briana Dawkins of Mural Arts. According to several community sources, no advance notice was given regarding the erasure.
Ortiz had previously reached an agreement with Midwood Investment & Development and Mural Arts to create a new art installation honoring Casarez and BIPOC LGBTQ history. However, in light of the whitewashing, Ortiz said in a statement that she would not go forward with the agreement.
“Midwood’s action has affected all the trust and work we have been building with the community so far,” Ortiz wrote. “My values are not in alignment with their process. I am ceasing my agreement with Midwood and Mural Arts feels strongly that they can not go forward either.” Ortiz also wrote that there had been discussions to preserve pieces of the mural and that neither she nor Mural Arts had any prior knowledge that the mural would be whitewashed.
In a statement on Twitter, Mural Arts also declined to move forward on a new installation, writing: “We are shocked to hear that A Tribute to Gloria Casarez has been painted out today. Casarez was a beacon of hope and possibility for the LGBTQ and Latinx community and with the loss of this iconic mural, we mourn the loss of Gloria all over again. We are consumed with deep sadness shared by Gloria’s family, the community, and the artist. When we first learned the building would be redeveloped, we invested months negotiating a letter of intent with Midwood to create a new tribute to the legacy of Gloria Casarez and Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist who once resided at that location. After this unexpected development, we cannot in good conscience move forward. We support artist Michelle Angela Ortiz’s decision to step away from the project and share the community’s devastation.”
Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, told PGN “I’m deeply disheartened and angry to see the whitewashing and erasure of my friend Gloria’s image by Midwood, especially without first informing Gloria’s family and friends. Even though her image may be gone from the face of the building, Philadelphia holds its ancestors tight, and we’ll continue to pursue the justice that she taught us to fight for.”
In a letter to Midwood Investment & Development, Rue Landau wrote “Not only was this whitewashing done in bad faith, doing it right before the holidays, at the height of the pandemic that has caused so much pain and suffering for so many in our community, was cruel and heartless. There is no justifiable business reason to paint over a mural you plan to demolish. In fact, the money you spent doing it, could have gone to preserving more LGBTQ history in the neighborhood.”
Stephanie Haynes, a friend of Casarez, also sent a letter to Midwood which read in part: “Painting over Gloria’s mural this morning was the absolute wrong move. It was literally whitewashing Latinx queer history. You have no idea the anger and outrage that this move has caused in the community. Do you think we’ll forget? Good luck trying to sell this property or getting people to live in your building if you ever build it across a picket line of angry LGBTQ folks.”
The Washington Square West Civic Association also condemned the whitewashing and released the following statement: “WSWCA condemns Midwood Investment and Development’s whitewashing of the Gloria Casarez mural and the complete disregard of ongoing negotiations with Gloria’s family, friends, and neighborhood advocacy groups.
“Gloria, a Latinx civil rights leader, and activist, was Philadelphia’s first director of the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs and passed away in 2014 after a long battle with cancer. As a leader, she fought for social justice, affordable housing, racial justice, and anti-oppression. The mural stood as a beacon within Wash West of the many values she represents. WSWCA’s mission is to protect and preserve the heritage of the community. Midwood’s undignified destruction of this iconic community symbol goes against everything WSWCA stands for.
“Before the unfortunate events that took place today, WSWCA was working on establishing a task force that would bring a new eye on development projects in the neighborhood. The blatantly intentional act of disrespect for a community champion and disregard for the residents’ voice only reinforces the need for WSWCA to identify opportunities and actions that would prevent the exploitation of our assets, deterioration of our culture, and history to remain unprotected.”
The Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs wrote “We join the community in its anger around the decision to whitewash this iconic piece of public art without forewarning. Painting over this mural was an unnecessary insult to the memory of Gloria, who was beloved by so many, and whose work as the first Executive Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs has endured through the years. She deserves a tribute that is fitting of her prominence and dedication to the community; the developers must make good on their promise to deliver another piece of public art that properly honors Gloria. We will continue to carry on Gloria’s legacy of ensuring that Philadelphia is an affirming place for all LGBTQ+ people — especially the most marginalized.”
A spokesperson from Midwood Investment & Development gave PGN the following statement: “We intend to honor our agreement with Mural Arts. This process and demolition has been planned and approved for months.”
Jason Villemez is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.