Sunday, November 22, 2009

Public art: importing both the craft and the credulousness.

A few weeks ago I expressed my skepticism about public art’s ability to catalyze neighborhood regeneration, using the respected Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia as the case study. Known internationally as the City of Murals, both municipal and private sponsors have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a rich array of murals along the sides of various buildings scattered throughout the City of Brotherly Love, many of which are the opuses of highly respected artists and treasured centerpieces of their communities. For that I applaud the effort. And I certainly welcome the opportunity for someone to prove me wrong that murals don't necessarily revitalize neighborhoods; in fact, I hope I'm wrong. But I still believe that the cognitive dissonance between the coexisting missions of beautification and revitalization ultimately nullifies much of the potential ROI of public monies spent for this lofty goal.

The Philadelphia murals often decorate the sides of party walls of rowhomes where one house was torn down and its neighbor remains; not only do the absence of windows in party walls make them the ideal canvas, but they otherwise serve as a drab reminder that a home used to be there. Neighborhoods with many exposed party walls offer the most fertile ground for murals; neighborhoods with fertile ground for murals have typically endured significant demolition (and no replacement housing); neighborhoods with many demolished homes are typically among the poorest and most distressed. Anyone can complete this loose syllogism: murals are overwhelmingly in poor neighborhoods. By no means is this always the case in Philly; some brick walls in fashionable Center City (downtown Philadelphia) have benefited from transformative, painstakingly cared for murals. But the association in the city with murals and poverty is so great that the higher-income neighborhoods have openly resisted the attempt to introduce murals on their buildings. (Typically these neighborhoods lack the supply of visible party walls, because no demolitions have taken place.) Demolished rowhomes expose parts of the adjacent house that were never intended to be seen; like a bad tan line, we want to smooth it out with the natural domestic skin or just cover it up completely. Murals do the latter.

The concealment function of murals manifests the core of the problem here: mural artists have diverted the attention from what is missing, but the vacant lot remains where a house once stood. If these distressed neighborhoods ever experience a renaissance, will community members be willing to sacrifice their murals to put up a new house there? Perhaps I protest too much, but these immobile works of public art depend on that vacancy, and it is far easier to estimate the economic impact of a new home breaking ground than it is to gauge the regenerative effect of a large painting presiding over a city block. (One visible, recurring positive impact of murals is that it seems to deter graffiti significantly.) My conversations with Jane Golden, Executive Director of the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia, revealed that she has come to terms with the fact that a new home in that vacant lot will nearly always supersede preservation of a mural; she confessed that she has had to sacrifice a few murals over the years, due either to new construction along the party wall or, unfortunately, the demolition of the dilapidated home upon which the mural was painted. Despite these setbacks, the Mural Program continues unabated in Philadelphia, and has caught on in a number of cities.

Indianapolis is one of many cities that have emulated the Philadelphia mural model with the goal of beautifying and improving neighborhoods. The mural below stands at the intersection of Meridian and Morris Streets in a neighborhood called either Concord or Sacred Heart (depending on who you talk to), about a mile and a half south of downtown:

It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance to realize that the brains behind this mural commission approached the project with skill and care; whatever one thinks of the aesthetic qualities of the mural itself, the result is hardly amateurish. The icon in the lower right corner (better visible in later photos) indicates that this project derives from a 2007 partnership between the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Christel House Academy, a local charter school, in which students teamed with artist Will Wilson in the implementation of his design. A link to a brief video at the Eiteljorg website demonstrates the process and implies that the principal goals were beautification and cultivating artistic stewardship among the students, many of whom come from this working class neighborhood.

The goals are laudable and certainly embellish what was previously little more than a wall of stacked cement blocks, belonging to a structure that apparently houses boats, as this photo below suggests:

As is the case with the wonderful array of murals in Philadelphia, the finished product and the creative implementation process are both far superior to the initial conception. Whether or not the small assortment of murals in Indianapolis derives its inspiration from Philly’s comprehensive program, the instigators here in the Midwest have also emulated the larger city’s insouciance toward locational precision. These two photos already reveal that this mural overlooks a vacant lot. A new angle will show more clearly how the mural and its building fit into the urban context:

It’s a corner lot—prime real estate in other parts of the city. While these later two photos don’t quite offer a sense of the scale, the first photo reveals it’s actually a relatively large lot, probably around an acre in size. Nothing in the Sacred Heart neighborhood right now would qualify as prime real estate, but what if that were to change? Telltale evidence in the vicinity suggests that could be the case: Sacred Heart rests just south of a major I-70 underpass; immediately to its north of the interstate, on Meridian Street, is a strip of restored older buildings with retail targeting a much higher income demographic, including a brand-new restaurant by the name of Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, which apparently is a revival of an old Indianapolis establishment popular in the 1920s.

In the distance (indicated by my red circle) is the featured mural, within eyesight from the al fresco dining.

Close by are two certifiable restaurant institutions, Greek Islands and Shapiro’s Delicatessen, both of which have stood in their current, architecturally nondescript structures for decades (the latter of the two is over a century old).

Thus, within just four blocks from the Meridian-Morris intersection with the mural are three successful restaurants. This may seem unremarkable, but these restaurants have succeeded in a somewhat non-descript, commercial/industrial area through sheer market demand. (Photos of this segment of Meridian Street are forthcoming.) Meanwhile, a few blocks to the southeast is the 80-year-old, recently refurbished Vollrath Tavern (reverting back to this original name under a new owner in 2008), featuring live music that targets the young hipster crowd. It is impossible to determine whether or not the appeal of these establishments could stimulate redevelopment or that their regenerative quality could “spread” to the Sacred Heart area just to the south. I’m not a fan of anthropomorphizing either blight or gentrification by treating it like a cancer/chemotherapy, thus my hesitation in the quoted verb “spread” in the previous sentence. However, I know that both developers and community activists often think this way, and the local Concord CDC has identified the Meridian Street and Morris Street corridors as retail development priorities in the Neighborhood Development Plan, and a new commercial development (the first in decades) has broken ground at the eastern edge of the neighborhood, the intersection of Terrace Avenue and Madison Avenue. Lastly, the CDC has received federal Community Development Block Grant funds in recent years to aid in repairs to the neighborhood’s aging housing stock.

How do these pertain to that mural?

Should this neighborhood experience the rejuvenation for which there are several indicators, such a property would likely be among the first sacrificed for development. The corner parcel itself benefits from a steady flow of southbound commuters, as well as a relatively brief walk to downtown. Its desirability is likely only to increase, encouraging a developer to build, and, in all likelihood, permanently conceal this lovingly produced mural. Developers could also easily purchase the barebones structure that the mural rests upon for a song, demolishing it and combining two parcels on which to build a larger structure. As discussed in my previous blog posts on Philadelphia’s murals, the presence of a mural on an increasingly lucrative vacant lot rarely if ever precludes development—it is not in the city’s best interest to inhibit a parcel from re-entering commerce, nor is it typically desirable among neighborhood advocates when a new development could improve residential or retail opportunities while providing jobs for locals during the construction process. Thus, if someone buys that corner lot and wants to build, neither the City nor the CDC are going to stop them. I suspect that the likelihood is strong that development could, in the relatively near future, result in this mural’s permanent concealment or destruction.

Should that time arrive, perhaps the mural will have served its beautification purpose. It intended to hide ugliness and economic stagnancy, and any development injects newness and private investment to what otherwise remained a litter strewn, largely neglected lot. But such an action could just as easily shatter the emotional connections forged by the creators of this mural. Perhaps “Mihtohseenionki” will not meet its demise for many years in the future, when the children are fully grown, but it could squander the opportunity for a teachable moment regarding neighborhood investment: the goal is to engage the children in the sort of collective stewards that fosters community improvement, but the result ushers in the most negative aspect of gentrification through the callousness of private development—Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Of course a struggling neighborhood like Sacred Heart needs the development, but any protests among neighbors because it will sacrifice a great mural embody more than just token obstructionist nimbyism—the Eiteljorg/Christel House project has taken a nearly valueless building and instilled value on a mere slice that would be almost impossible to preserve and relocate on its own. The neighbors resign themselves into letting the artwork go, in the name of revitalization that is supposed to offer nothing but benefit.

Is the solution so simple as to choose a better location for a mural the next time? Perhaps it is. The ugliest places may be the easiest to improve because they’re starting from such a dismal state of neglect, but maybe they should have searched for something less ugly and simply mundane. Indianapolis doesn’t have the rowhouses that foster giant blank party walls like you might see in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood, but a blank wall that directly fronts a corner (instead of a vacant lot) at least stands a better chance of survival. Several blocks away from the Morris-Meridian intersection, a similar artist/student collaborative resulted in the painting of several concrete retaining walls along a section of Madison Avenue that operates along a depressed highway.

Chances of these structures being demolished are slim—they’re far too utilitarian and serve a vital infrastructural purpose. The beautification and community building worked along these retaining walls, thousands of people zoom by them each day in their cars, and no amount of gentrification in the surrounding area could undermine them. Murals deter graffiti, fill aesthetic voids, encourage folk-art participation, and maybe even improve home values. But they are not so sacrosanct that the dedication of a mural should equate to the waving of a magic wand at a certain location. Public art of any medium can claim far too many positive externalities to deserve such a cavalier approach to site selection.


Amy said...

I was fortunate enough to be one of the painters in the Madison Ave mural project. I'm glad other people like the bright designs in what was such an ugly road area before. I can even see it a bit when I ride my bike to work up above on Raymond!

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks Amy--I'm a big fan of those murals as well. And I think/hope they will be around for a long time!

Unknown said...

A little off topic but this reminds me.

My great grandfather had his optometrist shop (in the 40 and 50's I think) in the boarded up space at the old apartment building across the street from this at Meridian and Morris.

ZERO 2 COOL said...

QUALITY I really like this blog, now im not 1 for adding links in my replies but I feel this is a great exception, I read a blog like this on by a graffiti artist called Banksy & another great bunch of graffiti artists called the Graffiti Kings.

Jsuiters1982 said...

I lived there all my life and as a child I can remember your family's shop .