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Murals: Making a statement, building community

Related story: Turning foreclosed homes into works of art

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"Wall of Respect"

Mark Rogovin

The community-based outdoor mural movement, now international in scope, began more than four decades ago when a collective of African-American artists created the "Wall of Respect" on the side of a two-story tavern building on Chicago's South Side.

That 1967 artwork, featuring the images of more than 50 black heroes, was a revolutionary act that echoed the Black Power rebellion in the streets.

"It was a guerilla mural," said artist Jeff Donaldson in an interview a few months before his death in 2004.  "It was a clarion call, a statement of existence of a people.  It became a rallying point for a lot of radical things."

Since then, murals have become a key element in community-building in most American cities.  A way for a neighborhood to say:  Here we are, and we're proud of it.  A vital "statement of existence of a people."

In the U.S., two of the most distinctive and ambitious efforts at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit and the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.

Detail of the "Wall of Respect."

Mark Rogovin

"The mighty black wall"

There were stories later that William Walker, the muralist who conceived the idea of "The Wall of Respect," had gotten an OK from the owner of the building at the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, a poor Chicago neighborhood, nearly 100 percent African-American.

Not true, said Donaldson who, with Elliott Hunter, created the jazz section of the mural.

"We didn't have permission to paint it," he said.  Walker talked to the tavern-keeper on the first floor who responded that he had no say over the building's exterior. The owner, "a white absentee landlord," eventually saw the work after it was completed, Donaldson said, and "recognized it made his property more valuable.

At the dedication of the mural on Aug. 27, 1967, Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks, who lived nearby, read a poem which included the lines:

It is the Hour of tribe and of vibration

the day-long Hour.  It is the Hour

of ringing, rouse, of ferment-festival.

Detail from the "Wall of Respect."

Mark Rogovin

In another poem read at the dedication, Don L. Lee, who later changed his name to Haki Madhubuti, called the two-story artwork "the mighty black wall."  And he added, "white people can't stand/the wall."

It's no wonder the work of art unsettled the likes of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and Mayor Richard J. Daley's City Hall.  The site became a magnet for Black Power rallies, speeches and art festivals.

And few were surprised in 1971 when, after a fire inside the building, the city moved quickly to demolish the structure.

(For other photos of the "Wall of Respect," look here.)

Sculptural murals

Demolition has also been the bane of Tyree Guyton's art.

For a quarter of a century, he has used a two-block section of his neighborhood on the east side of Detroit as his canvas. Centered on Heidelberg Street, the ongoing outdoor work is called the Heidelberg Project.

Since 1986, Guyton has created what might be called sculptural murals, attaching all manner of discarded stuff — televisions, shoes, Hula Hoops, suitcases, corsets, mattresses — to the exterior of homes (some occupied, some abandoned) and adding huge painted polka dots.

A night view of a Heidelberg Project home in Detroit.

Xavier Nuez

He has transformed vacant lots into art installations, such as one that became a field of upright vacuum cleaners.  In a work he called "Souls in Heaven," pairs of shoes hanging from the branches of an elm tree recalled the frequent lynching of blacks in the century after the Civil War.

The purpose, Guyton has explained, is to brighten and call attention to the community which one writer described as "a discarded neighborhood of the poorest people."

One house on the street was a hangout for prostitutes and drug addicts.  Asked by the owner to do something with it, Guyton festooned its facade with old dolls.  The disruptive tenants moved away.

The Heidelberg Project has brought Detroit attention and praise from the international art community. In 1989, the project won a Spirit of Detroit award from the City Council.

Yet, it's also been controversial within the city and even its neighborhood.

Just two years after the council praised Guyton's work, the administration of then-Mayor Coleman Young razed four city-owned buildings.  A decade later, another mayor, Dennis Archer, ordered three more of Guyton's sculptural mural homes taken down.

One of the remaining structures was twice hit by an arsonist in 2007.

Jenenne Whitfield, the project's executive director and Guyton's wife, told the Detroit News, "It's sad...For the most part, the artwork is left undisturbed.  The community around us is falling apart, but the artwork still shines through."

Murals such as this one have made Philadelphia "The City of Murals."

Eileen Figel

"City of Murals"

Philadelphia, by contrast, has embraced the idea of community murals to the point that it's now known as "The City of Murals."

Since 1984, its Mural Arts Program, headed by Jane Golden, has overseen the creation of 3,000 murals on the sides of buildings throughout the city's many neighborhoods.  The goal, especially in poorer communities, is to bring a sense of pride and the hope of better times.

Golden starts each year with a city budget of just under $1 million, but then adds another $3.5 million or more in other funding from state and private sources.

Some critics contend that the hundreds of murals in Philadelphia are a kind of propaganda with a bland message of sunny optimism.

Eileen Figel

Artists in the program work with college students, young neighborhood residents as well as others from the community to complete some 150 indoor and outdoor murals annually.  Even with that production, many hundreds of mural requests are on a waiting list.

Not everyone is a fan. 

Inga Saffron, architecture critic and former Moscow correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer, compared the plethora of murals to the propaganda-based public art of the Soviet Union, with a bland message of sunny optimism.

At times, community residents will complain about the design that's proposed for a neighborhood mural.

Jane Golden says that murals such as this one are signs "that things can change, that someone cares."

Eileen Figel

Golden tries to avoid such complaints by drawing on artists from the public schools and then meeting with residents for design ideas and, finally, encouraging people from the community to grab a paint brush and get involved.

The program, which started under Tim Spencer, began as a way of battling graffiti.  Today, it's seen as an essential element in community-building.

"I think that's what the murals do," Golden said in a 2007 interview with the Cincinnati Post.  "It's like a tipping point.  People see it as a sign that things can change, that someone cares.

"Once momentum starts to happen, people start to really believe in the neighborhood."

Posted in Arts & Culture

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