Someone tore down the new tribute to LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez within 48 hours by Michaela Winberg, Billy Penn

Someone tore down the new tribute to LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez within 48 hours by Michaela Winberg, Billy Penn

The building owner said they expected the artwork to remain up until at least the end of the month.

Less than 48 hours after an artist put up a new tribute to Gloria Casarez, the late LGBTQ activist whose mural was whitewashed by developers, the replacement work was summarily torn down.

“Someone ripped it down this afternoon,” artist Tiff Urquhart said Friday, upset but not deterred. “So I’ll be putting up another one somewhere else.”

Urquhart, a queer street artist known for her colorful wheatpastes, didn’t get prior approval from the building where she placed the image of Casarez’s face. But she and Franklin Club Inn President Roberta Kangilaski had come to an agreement, and they both expected the art would last.

“We agreed that it would stay until February 1,” Kangilaski told Billy Penn in an email. She wasn’t aware of when or how the artwork was desecrated, or by whom.

A mural of Latina civil rights leader Casarez, Philly’s first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, lived on the wall of the 12th Street Gym for six years before. The property’s new owner, Midwood Investment and Development, suddenly painted over the artwork the week of Christmas, shocking the community.

Midwood eventually apologized, but Mural Arts said it would shun the developer and no longer work with the company on a planned replacement.

It’s unclear whether something permanent will be erected — so Urquhart decided to put up something in the interim.

On Wednesday morning, she pasted a 4-by-4-foot image of the Latina activist to the exterior wall of the Franklin Club at 205 S. Camac St. Nestled estled on the cobblestone corner of Camac and St. James streets, the new location was less than 100 steps from the OG-mural-turned-white-wall.

Now this Casarez tribute has also disappeared.

Down the block from the whitewashed mural, a colorful new Gloria Casarez tribute by Michaela Winberg, Billy Penn

Down the block from the whitewashed mural, a colorful new Gloria Casarez tribute by Michaela Winberg, Billy Penn

Queer artist Tiff Urquhart eased her pain by installing a wheatpaste of the LGBTQ icon.

Last month a developer painted over a mural honoring Philly LGBTQ icon Gloria Casarez. This week, a queer street artist put up a new one just 50 feet away.

It was classic Philadelphia revenge. On Wednesday morning, Tiff Urquhart bound a 4-by-4-foot wheatpaste of Casarez to a wall half a block from the old 12th Street Gym. The piece depicts the civil rights leader’s face in warm jewel tones — purples, blues and maroons — meant to resemble the former sunset-bathed mural.

The new location, nestled on the cobblestone corner of Camac and St. James streets, is less than 100 steps from the white wall.

Queer Latina activist Casarez lived on the gym’s exterior for six years in the form of an expansive mural before the new owner, Midwood Investment and Development, suddenly whitewashed the artwork the week of Christmas.

Urquhart was staying with family in Harrisburg when she saw photos of the erasure circulate online.

“It’s kind of like a shot to the heart for the LGBTQIA community,” said the 33-year-old. “It just hurt.”

It’s unclear exactly how long the new artwork will last — since Urquhart didn’t get permission from the building’s owner beforehand.

Franklin Inn Club president Roberta Kangilaski didn’t find out until after the fact, and wasn’t sure if she would leave it up. “No quick answer,” she said.

The abrupt loss of the original Casarez mural stunned Philly LGBTQ activists and public art supporters in December. Midwood bought the building back in 2018, intending to tear down the property and build new apartments. The company struck a deal with Mural Arts to replace the artwork with an even bigger tribute to queer people and people of color.

After the mural was painted over without warning, Mural Arts and OG artist Michelle Angela Ortiz called off the deal.

Jane Golden, Mural Arts executive director, told Billy Penn she was thrilled to see the new work: “How lovely! It’s a beautiful mural of Gloria.”

Urquhart put other work aside to make it happen. “I wanted to put this up as quickly as possible before the whole demolition process got under way,” said the artist, who moved to Philly from Florida about a year and a half ago. “She just needed something in her memory right away.”

Born in South Philly and raised by a single mom, Casarez worked as executive director of the Philadelphia queer Latin@ org GALAEI and helped found the Philly Dyke March.

She was Philadelphia’s first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs. Casarez pioneered the tradition of raising a rainbow flag at City Hall during pride month, and she shepherded a comprehensive LGBTQ rights bill through City Council in 2013.

Midwood apologized for the surprise coverup, and said they’d still create a tribute on the new building. “We are truly sorry for the pain we’ve caused Gloria’s family and the local LGBTQ community,” spokesperson James Yolles told Billy Penn last week.

Urquhart hopes the new tribute is healing for the community — and vowed to keep Casarez’s image alive no matter how the building owner reacts.

“I hope I can bring some happiness and some joy to people,” she said. “There’s always a possibility of it getting taken down, and if it does, I’ll paint another one and try a different location.”

Philadelphia mural of beloved LGBTQ+ activist is abruptly taken down, By Jordan Robledo, Gay Times UK

Philadelphia mural of beloved LGBTQ+ activist is abruptly taken down, By Jordan Robledo, Gay Times UK

“A lot of us gathered (by the mural) to be close to Gloria after she left.”

In a report from TODAY, a mural for LGBTQ+ activist Gloria Casarez has been erased after instilling hope in Philadelphia’s 12th street LGBTQ+ neighbourhood.

The inspiring piece of art was part of the community for five years before Midwood Development, who bought the building in 2018, painted over it.

Erme Maula a resident of the community for the past 30 years told TODAY: “A lot of us gathered (by the mural) to be close to Gloria after she left. It was a place where you could feel like you were being looked at by Gloria and feel safe and be in this space.”

Casarez died from cancer in 2014 at the age of 42.

Tricia Dressel, Casarez widow, released a statement expressing her heartbreak.

“The white paint was so fresh that I could smell it as I looked up to try to find the outline of Gloria and my interlocked hands with our wedding bands,” she said.

Others in the community have also expressed their disappointment in the decision to paint over the mural when Midwood Development announced plans of demolishing the building entirely. Black trans woman attacked in her home after asking group to ‘quiet down’

Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, one of the painters of the mural, opened up about the lack of communication from the developer: “Not for one moment did they ever say part of the demolition process was whitewashing the mural. ”

She continued: “They never said that. For me to wake up Wednesday and find out they were painting the wall white, it was a shock.”

Ortiz also revealed that she was in talks with Midwood to create a new mural for Casarez but hoped that she would at least be notified of the erasure before.

Since the community uproar, a spokesperson for Midwood Investment and Development released a statement saying: “truly sorry for the pain we’ve caused Gloria’s family and the local LGBTQ+ community.”

They continued: “Because this site holds deep significance for the LGBTQ+ community and city, we began discussions months ago with Mural Arts Philadelphia about creating a meaningful piece of art in honour of Gloria as part of our project. We also agreed to make a $655,000 donation to Mural Arts for that artwork.”

In an act to preserve her memory, Ortiz projected an image of the beloved activist with a powerful message, “You can’t erase our history.”

Gloria Casarez made massive changes within the LGBTQ+ community and throughout the U.S..

From working on Philadelphia’s monumental LGBT Equality Bill to being named the city’s first director of LGBTQ+ affairs, Casarez has left an unforgettable legacy.

It’s time for Philadelphia to reckon with historical racism as an obstacle to preservation | Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer

It’s time for Philadelphia to reckon with historical racism as an obstacle to preservation | Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer

Who gets to decide which Philadelphia buildings, neighborhoods, and narratives should be preserved? That’s not a new question but is being raised again, prompted by an endangered set of Christian Street rowhouses. And it’s taking on new urgency in the context of the heightened awareness of the damage inflicted by racial inequities.

As a residential construction boom continues in and around Center City, some neighborhoods remain vulnerable to development pressures powerful enough to obliterate pieces of history cherished by many but unfamiliar to others. This has too often been the case in the historically Black and, in recent years, heavily gentrifying Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

Preliminary demolition of a Victorian-era house at 1513 Christian St. recently bought by a developer got underway last week. In her column, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron asked why the 1500 block — once nicknamed “Doctors Row” because many Black professionals lived there — has never been recognized as significant enough to deserve designation as a city historic district.

A district can be a barrier against demolition of a property. So can designation of a single property as historic by placing it on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The register is controlled by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, a city agency that votes on whether a building or site’s nomination, generated by an owner, a private citizen, or the commission itself, meets criteria for inclusion.

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

The former Minton house will be demolished to make way for yet another Center City condo tower. The Christian Street house also will be replaced by a condo building.

The commission is one of many city agencies that can impact redevelopment. Taken together, city policies and programs incentivize new construction more than renovation.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force recommended, and the commission is launching, a study of how best to undertake a citywide survey of historic resources beginning in 2022. The survey may take several years.

While it may be too late to save 1513 Christian, now is the time to save the rest of Doctors Row. The commission should ask City Council to declare a short-term moratorium on further demolition on the relevant blocks so commission staff or volunteers can prepare a nomination, or pave the way to establish a historic district.

Preserving the Doctors Row chapter of the Black Philadelphia story would be a small step. A larger one would be to make sure those at the table discussing which elements of the city’s history should be preserved represent all of Philadelphia, past and present.

Midwood Investment and Development vs. the LGBTQ community By Jason Villemez, Philly Gay News

Midwood Investment & Development vs. the LGBTQ community By Jason Villemez, Philly Gay News

You’re going to see the words Midwood Investment & Development a lot in this column. You’re also going to see Gloria Casarez a lot in this column. That’s because people need to know and remember the homophobic act that Midwood Investment & Development has done to Gloria’s memory and to the LGBTQ community.

It’s hard to come up with any practical reason why Gloria’s mural was whitewashed on December 23. Perhaps that’s because Midwood’s reason for the whitewashing was not practical at all, but political. Maybe Midwood thought that this act of aggression against the community would go unnoticed because people were celebrating their holiday. Maybe Midwood thought that the response would not be as strong, that it would be over quickly, and that they could just continue with the demolition. If that’s the case, then Midwood was completely wrong. And they should have known better. Gloria Casarez was, and is, a treasure of the LGBTQ community. Her work was important. That’s part of the reason why there was a mural of her in the first place.

Also baffling, perhaps more so than the whitewashing itself, was Midwood’s response to it.

The public relations company who answered my inquiries about the whitewashing, M18 Public Relations, either wasn’t briefed that it was going to happen or simply didn’t care to put together an actual strategy for handling the fallout. I had to write their representative four times to get an on the record quote, and even then the quote didn’t address the whitewashing or the hurt that it caused the community. The representative also seemed to have no idea that both the artist and Mural Arts almost immediately pulled out of their prior agreement with Midwood for a new art installation. Both were disgusted about what Midwood had done. The quote from Midwood said “We intend to honor our agreement with Mural Arts,” but at that point, Mural Arts had already released a statement that they were pulling out of the agreement.

All of this community backlash happened quickly once the first swaths of white were slashed down the sides of Gloria Casarez’s face. But the anger and outrage should have been predictable. How could the community not be angry? And how could a company with as much development experience as Midwood Investment & Development not have been prepared for such a response?

But, maybe Midwood actually was prepared. Maybe their lack of preparation, lack of a comprehensive statement, and severe lack of empathy shows that they just don’t care about the community or the neighborhood or its history. That’s the most likely answer. And however unsurprising the lack of empathy may be, it’s the pinnacle of shamefulness. Midwood is hiding behind their own power and influence and not owning up to what they’ve done.

The whitewashing of Gloria’s mural has likely brought more negative press to Midwood than if they’d simply destroyed the mural with a wrecking ball or implosion. This story has gotten national press. Numerous national LGBTQ-friendly organizations have decried Midwood’s actions. The community is more galvanized than ever, and many more people outside of Philadelphia and outside of the LGBTQ community now know about Midwood’s homophobia than before the whitewashing.

Here’s a tip for those in power: if you’re going to do homphobic actions, own up to it. Have enough decency to be honest and direct. It doesn’t matter if the homophobia is motivated by money or religion or institutional bigotry. Don’t hide behind a coat of white paint. 

If you look hard enough at 204 S. 12th Street, you can still see the outlines of Gloria’s face. You can see her eyes, her smile, and her legacy. And for Midwood, you don’t have to squint at all to see the homophobia.

Midwood Investment & Development: homophobic, racist? by Mark Segal, Philly Gay News

Midwood Investment & Development: homophobic, racist? by Mark Segal, Philly Gay News

Is Midwood Investment & Development homophobic and racist? If you feel that those words are too strong, read on. 

Here’s the short history of what has occurred. They buy the property of the former 12th Street gym, which has the mural of the late LGBT activist Gloria Casarez on its front wall. Part of the parcel also includes the Henry Minton House, a building that had been a major part of the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad which recused African Americans from slavery.

During months of discussions with both the LGBT and African American communities, Midwood was arrogant in those talks to save the mural or the building. Finally, as a last ditch effort and after much bad publicity, they agreed to a small compromise to use part of the 1% art, which the city requires of new developments, to have a mural and recognition of Gloria in the new courtyard of the new structure. The mural’s original artist as well as Mural Arts were both on board with the agreement. But apparently Midwood wasn’t finished causing grief for our community.

In what can only be called retribution against the LGBT community, two days before Christmas, Gloria’s mural was whitewashed. People watched as workers painted over every inch. There was no practical reason the whitewashing needed to happen. The reasons are purely personal: it is a personal attack from Midwood against us and our history.

Midwood Investment & Development erased LGBT history, they erased LGBT imagery from their promotion of their future development, they took away an important part of the gayborhood. By dismantling a symbol of our community, they are attempting to erase us and the neighborhood we built. Moreover, they did it two days before Christmas with no advance warning.

All of these steps are clearly homophobic.  Look at the debates and discussions of other symbols that citizens wanted removed during these times of social justice. Even Confederate statues had more time, discussion, and respect given to them. A LGBT person’s honor didn’t mean a thing. Midwood didn’t even have the respect for our community by alerting Gloria’s wife. All Tricia could do was stand across the street and watch.

Midwood Investment & Development has been trashed for its homophobia, racism and lack of sensitivity from the Washington Square West Civic Association, the ACLU, GLAAD, and numerous LGBT organizations. Their homophobic act has made national news, as it should.

Midwood: make this correct. We know where all your buildings are in Philadelphia and New York.

To the LGBT community: if Midwood does not make things right, it is time for peaceful civil disobedience. In 1969, we made it clear that those who attacked us would never have our silence again. They will never be allowed again to keep us invisible. Stand up and fight back.

Community mourns after developer abruptly paints over mural of late activist by Alyssa Newcomb on Today.com

Community mourns after developer abruptly paints over mural of late activist by Alyssa Newcomb on Today.com

Gloria Casarez, who was Philadelphia’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, died of cancer in 2014. She was 42 years old.

Dec. 27, 2020, 8:01 PM EST / Source: TODAY By Alyssa Newcomb

For the last five years, a mural of the late community activist Gloria Casarez has stood as a beacon of hope and representation on South 12th Street in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, an area located in the heart of the city.

Casarez, who was Philadelphia’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, died of cancer in 2014. She was 42.

“A lot of us gathered (by the mural) to be close to Gloria after she left. It was a place where you could feel like you were being looked at by Gloria and feel safe and be in this space,” Erme Maula, who has lived in the community for the last 30 years and knew Casarez, told TODAY.

On Wednesday, Dec. 23, the mural — which is on the side of a building that was purchased by Midwood Development and Investment in 2018 — was abruptly painted over with a fresh coat of white paint. The New York City based developer posted its intention a few months ago to demolish the building and had been engaging in talks with concerned community members about another way to honor Casarez at the location.

However, the sudden literal whitewashing of the mural came without warning and prompted questions about why it was even necessary. “Not for one moment did they ever say part of the demolition process was whitewashing the mural,” artist Michelle Angela Ortiz told TODAY. “They never said that. For me to wake up Wednesday and find out they were painting the wall white, it was a shock.”

Gloria Casarez, who was Philadelphia's first director of LGBTQ affairs, died of cancer in 2014. She was 42.
Gloria Casarez, who was Philadelphia’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, died of cancer in 2014. She was 42.Marisa Shaaban

“We mourn the loss of Gloria all over again”

Casarez was a force for equality in the Philadelphia community and at the national level. While a student at West Chester University, she was a founding member of Empty the Shelters, a national housing rights and economic justice organization. She later served as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI) in Philadelphia at the age of 27. In 1999, Casarez was celebrated as one of the “100 Most Influential Leaders of the New Millennium” by Out magazine.

In 2008, Casarez was appointed as Philadelphia’s first director of LGBTQ affairs. According to Philadelphia magazine, during her tenure she worked “to put into place the groundbreaking LGBT Equality Bill that helped Philadelphia earn a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index.” She also developed “priorities and policy for the administration in a wide range of areas, including health, city services, civil rights, public safety and education.”

Gloria Casarez in 2012.
Gloria Casarez in 2012.Tara Lesserd

After Casarez’s death in 2014, Ortiz and Briana Dawkins spent a month and a half painting the mural a year later. They also enlisted help from her family and friends to paint parts of the mural, bringing even more meaning to the project. While Ortiz said she had been in talks with Midwood about using a $1 million public art bonus to cover the cost of creating a new tribute to Casarez in the area, she hoped to also salvage her work, even after a demolition she expected to be notified about in advance.

The mural was painted on parachute cloth, which the artist described as a “polyester fiber that adheres to the brick wall.” With the plans to demolish the building, Ortiz said she still believed it would have been possible to collect large pieces of the mural to reassemble and save. She doesn’t understand why the building is still standing, but Casarez was painted over.

The mural was painted over without warning on the morning of December 23.
The mural was painted over without warning on the morning of December 23.Marisa Shaaban

“There’s so much symbolism. Gloria represented a group of people who are marginalized, not seen or heard and have felt the effects of erasure, so for her to be painted over by white paint is re-traumatizing so many in the community,” she said.

Mural Arts, a group that had been in discussions with the developer about creating a new way to honor Casarez and expanding the plan to include Henry Minton — a prominent Black abolitionist who died in 1883 — tweeted it was “shocked” and “we mourn the loss of Gloria all over again.” (Minton’s home and place of business is next door to the mural and will also will be demolished by the developer.)

Casarez in 2011.
Casarez in 2011.Tara Lesserd

A spokesperson for Midwood Investment and Development told TODAY in a statement that the company is “truly sorry for the pain we’ve caused Gloria’s family and the local LGBTQ community.”

“Because this site holds deep significance for the LGBTQ community and city, we began discussions months ago with Mural Arts Philadelphia about creating a meaningful piece of art in honor of Gloria as part of our project. We also agreed to make a $655,000 donation to Mural Arts for that artwork. Finally, we offered ground floor space in the Camac Bath Building to the LGBTQ community free of charge,” the spokesperson said.

“We have worked actively in Philadelphia for more than two decades and look forward to fulfilling our agreement with Mural Arts Philadelphia to honor the memory and legacy of Gloria Casarez and Henry Minton.”

Her widow, Tricia Dressel, described her heartbreak in a statement to TODAY about how “the white paint was so fresh that I could smell it as I looked up to try to find the outline of Gloria and my interlocked hands with our wedding bands.”

Gloria Casarez with her wife, Tricia Dressel.
Gloria Casarez with her wife, Tricia Dressel.

“This white paint now covers the images of Gloria’s family — who generations ago helped lay the stone for the Ben Franklin Bridge and the ground for Philadelphia’s first Spanish church — La Milagrosa. This white paint now covers the images of our community members who are living out Gloria’s legacy every day,” she said.

Ortiz projected an image of Casarez on the newly painted wall, along with a message: "You can't erase our history."
Ortiz projected an image of Casarez on the newly painted wall, along with a message: “You can’t erase our history.”Michelle Angela Ortiz

On Wednesday, hours after her work was erased, Ortiz knew she had to do something.

She went to the location on South 12th Street in the Gayborhood and projected an image of Casarez onto a wall, along with the message, “You can’t erase our history.”

Whitewashing Gloria Casarez mural is a violent act against Philly’s LGBTQ community | Opinion by David Acosta for the Philadelphia Inquirer

Whitewashing Gloria Casarez mural is a violent act against Philly’s LGBTQ community | Opinion by David Acosta for the Philadelphia Inquirer

On Wednesday, Midwood Properties, a New York-based real estate developer who bought the property which used to house the 12th Street Gym, whitewashed the Gloria Cazares mural before demolition was set to start to make way for a 30-story housing complex. The act was not only deliberate, but it was also done in bad faith without consulting either the artist who created the mural, Michelle Angela Ortiz, or Mural arts.

For months, a group of us — including friends of Gloria; Gloria’s wife, Tricia Dressel; the artist; Mural Arts and concerned neighbors who opposed the project — had been working with Midwood Properties to try and preserve the mural and if not salvageable, to create a new project that honored Gloria’s legacy as well as the legacy of the Black abolitionist Henry Minton who lived on the property and was part of the underground railroad. It is believed that the property still contains tunnels used at the time, a fact that should be investigated so that the property can be designated as historically significant and so as to prevent its impending demolition.

The erasure of the mural feels particularly painful as it was the only mural depicting a Latinx LGBTQ woman of color in a city with 3,600 murals to date and counting. The mural’s position in the heart of the Gayborhood was also significant to the LGBTQ community who see the neighborhood as an important location with historical ties to business, and community-based organizations, and as a place where the LGBTQ community has for decades celebrated not only our community festivals but also some of our most important civil rights achievements.

The destruction of the mural also destroyed the artistic process through which murals are created. In this case, the careful  research and interviews conducted by the artist to ensure that the mural captured the most important elements of the subject’s life as well as the creation of the mural itself which involved her family, her friends and community. More poignantly, Gloria’s mother and aunt (both now deceased) as well as her cousins helped to paint the mural while telling us stories about her, and in destroying the mural Midwood destroyed their contribution to its making.

As friends shared photos of workmen whitewashing this beautiful mural which meant so much to so many of us, I could not help but feel a sense of rage shared by so many of us people of color about the willful erasure of our lives and our stories. The optics of literally painting over the mural with white paint is not lost on those of us whose lives oftentimes feel invisible because of the color of our skin, our economic conditions, our sexual orientation and our stories as immigrants. Gloria’s work and legacy was in fighting for that recognition, she worked to even the playing field and it was that legacy the mural so beautifully celebrated. In what has already been a difficult year for so many, the destruction of the mural is a violent act against all of us who saw our lives and our work represented on that wall.

David Acosta is a poet, writer, artist and social justice activist and was a close friend of Gloria Casarez.

New art installation in jeopardy after mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez in Philly’s Gayborhood whitewashed without warning, story by Wendy Ruderman and Amy S. Rosenberg for the Philadelphia Inquirer

New art installation in jeopardy after mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez in Philly’s Gayborhood whitewashed without warning, story by Wendy Ruderman and Amy S. Rosenberg for the Philadelphia Inquirer

The mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez on the old 12th Street Gym was already scheduled to be torn down, but a sudden whitewashing of the wall Wednesday has infuriated the artist, community members and Casarez’s widow.

Now, a plan to create a new art installation to honor Casarez and also Henry Minton, a Black abolitionist who lived and worked at the same location, is in jeopardy.


“They knew by demolishing the mural as is, that would be very painful,” said mural artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, who said she would no longer work with the company that owns the property on the new art project. “They’re trying to erase their shame and guilt with the white paint, that’s what they’re trying to do.”

On Thursday, the building’s now white exterior at the corner of 12th and St. James Place stood out in stark contrast to the now-gone vividly painted portrait of a sunlit Casarez at the center of emanating rays, a second image of her behind a bullhorn in the bottom right.

Detail of the mural, "A Tribute to Gloria Casarez" by Michelle Angela Ortiz, on South 12th Stt. Oct. 8, 2020. It is facing imminent destruction by a developer to build a 31-story high rise, and a group has organized against it.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer Detail of the mural, “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez” by Michelle Angela Ortiz, on South 12th Stt. Oct. 8, 2020. It is facing imminent destruction by a developer to build a 31-story high rise, and a group has organized against it.

“The erasure of the mural sort of just — it really kicks up, for a lot of us, the loss of Gloria,” Tricia Dressel, Casarez’s widow, said during a phone interview Thursday morning. Inquirer Morning Newsletter

“Gloria’s mural brought life to 12th Street and it celebrated Gloria’s life,” she said. “I don’t want to give too much power to the folks who took it away because they’ll never be able to take away Gloria’s legacy or her life, but losing the mural does kick up grief and loss.” Advertisement

Wednesday night, Ortiz, the artist, went to the site of her mural in outrage, projected an image of her mural onto the empty wall, and tweeted, “You can’t erase our history. Right now, my mural is projected on the wall whitewashed by Midwood. I stand in solidarity with Gloria’s family and the communities she fought for.”

Ortiz said she had no prior knowledge that Midwood Investment & Development, the development company that purchased the historic complex of buildings, would be whitewashing the mural. She said she had met in person with company CEO John Usdan and two other representatives on Nov. 6 and talked about salvaging portions of the mural prior to demolition.

The mural was painted on Parachute cloth that was adhered permanently to the brick wall.

Midwood had entered into a nonbinding agreement with Mural Arts to create a new art installation, and said Thursday the whitewashing was part of an approved plan to demolish the building.

Midwood’s action, Ortiz said, “has affected all the trust and work we have been building with the community so far. My values are not in alignment with their process.” Advertisement

Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted Thursday that he was “stunned” by the sudden removal of the mural. “The community was bracing for the loss of the mural due to demolition, but this act seems unnecessarily hurtful,” he said.

The wall of the former 12th Street Gym, which held a mural of Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez, is pictured in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. The mural was painted over without notice as part of a developer's plan to raze the building.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer The wall of the former 12th Street Gym, which held a mural of Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez, is pictured in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. The mural was painted over without notice as part of a developer’s plan to raze the building.

Mural Arts Philadelphia said they too would support Ortiz’s decision to step away from the project, though they had previously announced a nonbinding agreement for a $655,000 public art piece “with community engagement that honors the legacy of Gloria and pays tribute to the community.” Ortiz was to be the lead artist.

“After this unexpected development, we cannot in good conscience move forward,” the statement said. “Mural Arts Philadelphia is 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.” Advertisement

Mural Arts said it had invested months negotiating with Midwood to create the new tribute to Casarez and Minton.

Earlier this week, Midwood’s public relations representatives issued a statement announcing a “new and more expansive art installation on South 12th Street, “that would continue to honor Casarez and BIPOC LGBTQ Ancestors,” as well as Minton, in a separate art installation.

The statement said Midwood agreed to cover the full cost of the new art installation “and work closely with the community,” but made no mention of any plans to paint over the existing mural.

The mural, "A Tribute to Gloria Casarez" by Michelle Angela Ortiz, on South 12th Stt. Oct. 8, 2020. It is facing imminent destruction by a developer to build a 31-story high rise, and a group has organized against it.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer The mural, “A Tribute to Gloria Casarez” by Michelle Angela Ortiz, on South 12th Stt. Oct. 8, 2020. It is facing imminent destruction by a developer to build a 31-story high rise, and a group has organized against it.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Midwood said, We intend to honor our agreement with Mural Arts. This process and demolition has been planned and approved for months.

Some questioned Mural Arts’ role in moving ahead with its agreement with Midwood, which would get the company zoning allowances in exchange for its participation in the proposed art project. Advertisement

Philadelphia preservationist Faye M. Anderson, who has worked to preserve the legacy of Minton, an elite caterer who, she said, “entertained Frederick Douglass and gave John Brown a place to stay shortly before Harper’s Ferry raid,” said the entire project was erasing the elaborate and important history of the location, 204 S. 12th St.

And she said the agreement between Mural Arts and Midwood excluded the community. “They can whitewash the building, build their little, cookie-cutter high rise, but they have to come back to the same community. Why would you alienate the very community you need to secure approval from the art commission?

Casarez was appointed as Philly’s first director of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender affairs in 2008 by then-Mayor Michael Nutter. A fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, affordable housing, and AIDS awareness, Casarez dedicated most of her life fighting for the social and economic well-being of marginalized communities in Philadelphia. She died in 2014 of cancer.

On Thursday, an angry Nutter had some expletive-laden comments. He said whatever the developer’s plans, to paint over the mural during Christmas week without notifying the artist or the widow was unconscionable. Advertisement

“They have some damage to repair,” Nutter said. “It’s an issue of respect. While they may be from out of town, they’re not new here. They’ve been talking with these folks a long time. Do things in a manner that have some dignity about it. You don’t one day suddenly white it out. Did you think no one was going to notice?”

Thursday, the only homage to Casarez on the building was a spray-painted “Gloria” on the side that runs along narrow St. James Street.

Dressel, Casarez’s widow, said she was on a work Zoom call Wednesday morning when her cell phone began to ping incessantly with text messages. “They’re destroying the mural,” one text read.

Dressel and her current wife drove from their Wissahickon neighborhood to Center City. As they drove, Dressel said she hoped to get there in time to see the mural one last time.

Perhaps the section depicting Dressel and Casarez’s fingers entwined with their wedding bands would still be visible — or she could take a brick from that scene as a keepsake.

The wall of the former 12th Street Gym, which held a mural of Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez, is pictured in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. The mural was painted over without notice as part of a developer's plan to raze the building.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer The wall of the former 12th Street Gym, which held a mural of Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez, is pictured in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. The mural was painted over without notice as part of a developer’s plan to raze the building.

Dressel, 42, who married Casarez in 2011, arrived to find the mural “literally whitewashed,” with only a faint outline of the work seeping out beneath the white paint. An entire community memory wiped away, she said.

“When I got there, the paint was literally so fresh, I could smell the paint and I could see the outline of the images…The mural was completely painted over. There was just nothing.”

While Casarez’s image was prominent, the mural told a larger story. The mural depicted Casarez’s ancestors, including her great-great-grandfather, a stone mason who helped build the Ben Franklin Bridge. It detailed Casarez’s efforts to save La Milagrosa Chapel on Spring Garden Street and featured many community leaders, including several Black indigenous people.

Her mom, who died last year, helped paint one of the vignettes, as did her aunt, a cousin, Dressel’s parents, and former Mayor Nutter.

”We all participated in the painting of this mural and there was just no way to say goodbye or honor it — or even just get a brick,” Dressel said.Sponsored ContentThe Genesis GV80 and This Artist Are United by Their Audaciousness by Genesis

Staff writer Valerie Russ contributed to this article.

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