Skip to main content

Turning foreclosed homes into works of art

Related story: Murals:  Making a statement, building community


"Peace on Earth" by Lydia Stein, across the street from the William D'Abate Elementary School in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, RI.

Lydia Stein


Here's a novel way of dealing with the foreclosure epidemic:

Turn the empty houses into works of art.

That's what's been happening on a small scale in Providence, RI, where, over the last two years, artist Lydia Stein has overseen the painting of murals on the facades of ten homes left vacant when their owners could no longer pay the mortgage.

Lydia Stein

"My mission as an artist," Stein says, "is to find ways to make art out of practically nothing. This interesting and inspiring phenomenon can be made with very little resources — and make life out of waste."

Empty-faced homes covered in plywood send a distressing message about a neighborhood.  They become magnets for graffiti and vandalism and can quickly turn into eyesores.

A mural changes that, says Carrie Zaslow, a program officer with the Rhode Island affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) and vice-chair of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts.  "If you have to have your kid walk by a boarded and abandoned building, a mural makes it more palatable."

And not just palatable.  "It's there as a piece of art with images people are happy to see," she says.  "You take something very ugly and make it visually interesting."

"The community really enjoys it"

Detail from the "Wall of Respect" in Chicago

Mark Rogovin

The community-based outdoor mural art movement began in 1967 with the creation of the "Wall of Respect" on the side of a two-story tavern on the South Side of Chicago.  Since then, urban murals have tended to be painted along busy streets on public and commercial buildings and on the blank sides of multi-unit structures.

With the exception of the two-block-long Heidelberg Project in Detroit, murals are rarely found on quiet avenues in residential neighborhoods.

"You don't see artwork on housing very often," Stein says.  "You can tell the community really enjoys it."

The mural-painting effort, which Stein has named HousEART, has made artworks of homes in two Providence communities, Smith Hill and Olneyville.  It began in 2009 as the brainchild of Christian Calderone of the Smith Hill Community Development Corp.

A mural titled "Dream House" by Bethany Allard in Olneyville, created in 2010.

Lydia Stein

"He came to me and said they had lots of money to acquire vacant houses in the neighborhood, and a temporary mural would keep down the graffiti and bring some positive energy to the neighborhood," Stein recalls.

That year, Stein painted a mural on a foreclosed home and arranged for other artists to do two more houses.

In 2010, she designed and executed a mural on one home the Olneyville Housing Corp., the lead agency in Rhode Island LISC's comprehensive community development effort, Our Neighborhoods.  In addition, she oversaw the painting of other homes for the Olneyville Housing as well as three homes for the city of Providence.

"A spiritual benefit"

Zaslow says the artistic effort fit perfectly into that comprehensive community development strategy because it addressed many needs in a simple — and beautiful — way.

An untitled mural by Tara Cimini in Olneyville.

Lydia Stein

In addition to keeping graffiti at bay and turning an eyesore into a streetscape asset, it served "as a catalyst in building new relationships" as neighbors watched the work develop. "It used art as a tool in building the social fabric," Zaslow says

And, when the work was done, the neighborhood was proud of it.

"There's a spiritual benefit that can happen by bringing color and vitality to a neighborhood," Stein says.

A home across the street from the William D'Abate Elementary School in Olneyville had been vacant for two years and "gave a boarded-up feeling to the whole neighborhood," says Stein.

So the D'Abate PTA was delighted when Stein transformed it with a mural she titled "Peace on Earth," featuring a jungle of whimsically executed animals — a lion, a snake, a lamb, a panda, an elephant, a tyrannosaurus rex, a mouse and others — living in peaceful co-existence.

Detail from "Peace on Earth."

Lydia Stein

"I paint a lot of lions and lambs hanging out together," Stein says.  "I love the whole idea of animals who are normally predator and prey and are all living in peace. It's a great allegory."

In fact, the PTA was so delighted that, when they learned at a meeting that Jessica Vega of LISC had helped make it happen, they gave her a standing ovation. (Vega, a former LISC AmeriCorps member, is currently the LISC Our Neighborhood Program Manager for Olneyville Housing Corp.)

And the Providence Journal published a long feature story about the effort.

Olneyville and art

Zaslow notes that, even before the murals, art played an important role in the hopes of Olneyville residents for the future.

In the Olneyville Community Contract, a quality-of-life plan completed in early 2010 as part of the Our Neighborhoods initiative, the residents wrote of expecting city officials to "focus particularly on identifying 'creative businesses' — meaning both art-related businesses and other creative entrepreneurs — and connecting them to available spaces and storefronts in Olneyville."

Regarding efforts to beautify the neighborhood, the residents wrote, "Public art and landscaping are additional opportunities to create more beautiful public spaces that can encourage social interaction — and such projects can also provide work for neighborhood residents."

To pay small stipends to artists for the murals last year, Stein received $3,000 from the city arts department and a $3,500 grant from the State Council of the Arts.

So, for the artists, the pay wasn't much.  And then there was the question of longevity — or lack of it.

Any mural, battered and beaten by the changing of the seasons and the afflictions of weather, has a limited life expectancy.  But that's much shorter for the paintings on foreclosed homes since the goal, eventually, sooner rather than later, is to fix the homes up and move a family in.

"Real life"

That didn't worry Stein.

"I found it very liberating," she says.  "I just told myself:  I can't fuss over this.  I just have to finish this so it will be up there for as long as possible."

Frank Shea, the executive director of Olneyville Housing, told the Providence Journal, "The solution is getting families into these homes.  But at least we are doing something in the interim that shows that there is community investment and people that care about these neighborhoods."

Stein doesn't begrudge the loss of her art when the homes are finally rehabilitated and re-occupied.

"There will be real life going in and out of there," she says.


(Look here for more images of murals that have been done or overseen by Lydia Stein in Providence.)

Posted in Arts & Culture, Rhode Island

Stay connected

Stay up to date with news and events related to the Institute: