Jun 24

Uptown Locomotion: Stories from Strawberry Mansion

by: Emily O'Neill

Uptown Locomotion is Joe Boruchow’s largest mural to date and a timeless centerpiece spanning the 33rd Street Bridge as it runs between Oxford and Girard streets. The pasted cutout drawings of key neighborhood moments and figures swing across the bridge in Boruchow’s signature bold black and white style. The mansions sit still, jazz musicians strum, men ride horses in an endless motion, and without color, it’s left up to the imagination to determine whether the skies are grey, bright, or starry. Rain falls diagonally in one image’s sky, clearing up by the next, creating the impression a rainbow is nearby. Late local singer Dottie Smith and her band perform in concert on the east side of the mural. Boruchow plays with time and its passing, giving each player a different weather condition, progressing from a single cloud to rain, ending in lightning. All at once it captures what could be an entire career of performances, a summer’s worth, or a single night, where the music mirrored the changes in the sky.

Uptown Locomotion also pays homage to the legendary John Coltrane, whose Philadelphia home in Strawberry Mansion is within walking distance of the bridge. Coltrane moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 1943, arriving in the city that biographer and music scholar Lewis Porter called the “perfect place to develop his art.” The row home he purchased on North 33rd Street in 1952 and lived exclusively in until 1958 is now simply known as The John Coltrane House. In 1999, the house became a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s list of endangered properties – the vacant house is still in dire need of funds for repair.

Here in Philadelphia, John Coltrane played with a flourishing community of innovative jazz musicians. But it was his spiritual awakening that altered the course addiction and substance abuse had charted, catapulting Coltrane into luminary status. Jazz legend Miles Davis fired Coltrane after a string of erratic performances, but Coltrane rebounded brilliantly. The story goes: Coltrane consumed nothing but water and spent five days secluded in his home, during which time he entered a spiritual metamorphosis where he found a definite purpose in life and music. In the liner notes to his defining, transcending album recorded in 1964, A Love Supreme, he writes of the 1957 revelation: “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life…His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly–a love supreme–.”

Stories like this, real and apocryphal, make our city tick. Strawberry Mansion, rich with the legends of its inhabitants, has walls and thoroughfares ripe with places to record these incredible stories in a beautiful visual autobiography. Uptown Locomotion serves as a reminder of that history, of the community’s special significance, and of the bright directions forward.

There’s so many ways to connect with this history and with John Coltrane: learn about the history and restoration of the John Coltrane House, listen to A Love Supreme, and then check out some of the mural’s iconography below. And don’t forget to come out on June 25 and see this fantastic mural for yourself.

Last updated: Jun 23, 2016

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