By Brandi Underwood
In July 2012, a building on the 800 block of Mercer Street burned down, leaving a giant gap in the already lacking Downtown Princeton streetscape.
The alley created by the void was dark, depressing and often a destination for illegal and dangerous activity.
Beginning two weeks ago, that darkness began to be diminished. Now, the walls flanking the empty space have been invaded by alien occupants of a new, much more colorful variety. These new, galaxy-garnered guests took shape from the nozzle of Princeton native Patch Whisky’s spray paint can.
Princeton Renaissance Project, empowered by the Blueprint Communities Program and sponsored by the West Virginia Community Development Hub, began planning a large-scale community revitalization project more than a year ago.
A large part of that project involves rejuvenating Mercer Street by way of an arts revival. All down the street, blank walls have become canvas for new artwork, and a number of other beautification projects are still in production.
Greg Puckett, executive director of Community Connections Inc., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to improving the lives of children and families on a local, regional and statewide level, is a co-chair of the Princeton Renaissance Project team.
“We have a drug problem. We have a prostitution problem,” Puckett said of Princeton. “If we work on positive economic development and community improvement, guess what? All of those things fade.
“Downtown revitalization happens when you put effort in, not necessarily money.”
Puckett said that while of course money is important, effort is what’s key.
“Effort means more than money, and that’s what you’re seeing downtown,” Puckett said.
Enter Patch Whisky, a Princeton native with an artist portfolio boasting a degree from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, signature wall murals all over the East Coast from New York City to Miami, set-design work for “Rock of Ages,” starring Tom Cruise, and his work wrapping the walls of a Mellow Mushroom restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“Those walls were such a negative part of the downtown area, where they burned out and left a gap right in the middle of the downtown scape,” said Puckett. “We thought, ‘What can we do to take that and completely transform it?’ Patch’s work does it.”
A Princeton High School graduate, Patch describes his artist career as “pretty much going all over and dropping rainbow monsters on cities and towns.”
He said he has worked on similar revitalization projects in neighborhoods of several states and is happy to be working on a project back in his hometown.
“It brings life back and it brings excitement to communities,” Patch said. “This is a big movement and it’s working.
“This was a dark, dark alley and I’m bringing it back to life,” he said.
Patch now calls Charleston, S.C., his headquarters, where he’s painted a multitude of his unmistakable monster murals all over the South.
His short-term goals are to take his van, dubbed the “Whisky Machine,” out west and invade walls in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“It’s going down,” he said. “The whole nation is awaiting invasion.”
Nina Geary, of Princeton, took a second to stop and stare at Patch’s Mercer Street monstrosity, literally, which measures roughly 40 feet high and 80 feet wide.
“I think it’s cool. I like to see different forms of art,” Geary said. “Kids need to see this. It could encourage them to step out and be creative, maybe think outside the box of their video games.
“I’m really hoping things will turn around here; I think they will,” she said.
Kitty White, of Lerona, said she’s already noticing a change on the street due to the mural additions.
“There’s people on the street walking that didn’t used to be out here,” White said. “I can remember when this was a wonderful place. We need to reclaim this place.”
According to Puckett, reclamation is exactly what’s happening.
“It is our renaissance, in all forms — from economic all the way down to the artistic,” Puckett said. “Art is meant to be different. Art is meant to inspire. Art can make you dream.”
If all goes as planned, Puckett hopes Mercer Street will be encouraging kids and future generations to dream for a long while to come.
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