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Rizzo mural erased as calls for racial justice spur change in Philly

Jacob Adelman
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Shoppers visited the Italian Market Sunday to find a major change had come to the storied South Philadelphia row of butchers, cheesemongers and veggie stalls: The three-story visage of former Mayor Frank Rizzo that had long stared down the street from one of its busiest corners was gone.

“It was such an assault on the eyes,” Susan DiPronio, 70, said of the mural of the former mayor and police commissioner, which had been all but painted over as dawn broke hours earlier.

Around her, shoppers and dog walkers stopped to snap photos of the wall that had once depicted an exhausted-looking Rizzo in a gray suit with the South Ninth Street market in the background.

The only bit of the mural that remained visible was a painted “two-hour parking” sign that had been part of the market streetscape background. That section had been too close to a live electrical line for painters to approach, a Mural Arts Philadelphia spokesperson said.

“It was a horrible mural, he was a horrible person,” DiPronio, who works for a food wholesaler, said. “My eyes feel at peace now.”

National outcry: The 25-year-old mural had been painted over as a national outcry over racial injustices and the killing of George Floyd renewed calls locally to stop glorifying the legacy of a mayor known for his aggressive treatment of the city’s black and gay communities.

The mural’s removal came four days after the controversial 9-foot Rizzo statue was hauled away from the Municipal Services Building in Center City, where it became a focal point of protests. Before the massive bronze statue was taken down, protesters defaced it, attempted to set it ablaze, and tried to topple it themselves.

Shortly after the statue’s removal, Mural Arts Philadelphia said it would “cease all involvement” with the Rizzo mural.

“We know that the removal of this mural does not erase painful memories and are deeply apologetic for the amount of grief it has caused,” the group said in a statement Sunday morning, as its crews covered over the artwork with tan paint. “We believe this is a step in the right direction and hope to aid in healing our city through the power of thoughtful and inclusive public art.”

New image: Italian Market merchants and property owners said in a statement this week that what replaces the Rizzo image will be something that “better represents the fabric” of the area.

“We agree it is time to replace this long-standing piece of art to begin to heal the Black community, the LGBTQ community and many others,” they said.

Janet Anastasi, an owner of Anastasi Seafood at Ninth Street and Washington Avenue, said after the mural came down Sunday that she had long been working in its shadow without giving adequate thought to Rizzo’s legacy for members of the city’s disenfranchised communities.

She said she was grateful for the outpouring of frustration this week that led to its removal because it forced her to confront that legacy.

“I’m enlightened,” Anastasi said. “I think we all are.”