“They were discriminating towards art. They were discriminating towards a community.”
I’ve always been a big fan of murals in the city, ever since I was a child. First and foremost, let’s be real – they’re pretty awesome looking. Aesthetics aside, tho, they serve a number of other important functions that can’t be overlooked. They’re a great way to get young people feeling involved in their community, and give them an artistic outlet. The murals can also serve a number of historical and cultural purposes – sometimes they depict important historical figures, sometimes they remember musicians we all loved an miss, some capture ethnic/cultural periods of an area, and others attempt to lay out the history of a neighborhood. All are important pieces of the ‘story’ of a particular community – even the paintings of Marley and Big Pun.
Today’s Boston Globe features a story about a group of young artists working on such a mural in Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood, a part of Roxbury. Now without getting too too deep into the history, [as I am not familiar, admittedly, with all the details], Dudley had a rough go of it in the 80s and 90s. Poverty, violence, depreciating property values – its a familiar, and sad, story of the city. The artists, working as part of Boston’s summer jobs program, planned to tell the history of the area in it’s mural – showing how the community has weathered these adversities, and how it has responded and grown. From Boston.com:
“It gives you like an important feeling,” said Randy Vicente, an 18-year-old from Hyde Park. “You don’t want to put just anything on the wall. It seemed like we had the perfect idea.”
Carlos Santiago, the 25-year-old lead artist, refers to his fellow painters as ‘my crew’, and relishes the speckles of paint on his plaid shorts, T-shirt, and white Nike high-tops. He conceived not only of the first frame, representing the neglect, but also the subsequent frames that showed members of the community picking up trash, turning vacant lots into community gardens, holding signs that say, “Don’t dump on us,” and admiring yellow and purple affordable houses “that are actually nice, that you can live in.”
“But the MBTA, which owns the East Cottage Street wall where the mural is located, told them their depiction of the neighborhood’s roughest days was too negative, that images of fires and words such as disinvestment and arson could not be used, according to the artists, members of Cape Verdean Community Unido. In essence, they said, they were asked to whitewash history.”
Now, I was simply going to link to this article in the sidebar, and say something about how the T should take it’s collective head out of its ass – but there’s more to this than all that. This area of Boston – along with many others – has gone through what can only be described, in my mind, as a fucked-up couple of decades. That’s just the way it is. One might argue the degree to which the area was having problems – and the causes – but we can’t ignore that these problems existed.
And that’s what a whitewashed mural – obviously – is doing.
Let’s not kid ourselves – nobody from the community needs to be reminded of the issues they faced in the past, and perhaps continue to face today. They know the deal, so to speak. But part of the importance of the mural is that it informs young people – and, more importantly in my mind, newcomers – of the area’s past. It’s a reminder of what was. Dudley is undergoing changes, and is one of the latest areas in Boston to see the signs of possible gentrification – it will almost certainly see a huge increase in its “yuppy” population in the future. As the social fabric of the area changes, it should not forget itself – nor should city agencies [like the MBTA] attempt to ‘clean-up’ the neighborhood’s story.
This isn’t an ‘anti-gentrification’ argument – as in, shove some murals in the face of the yuppies to remind them they’re not really from the neighborhood. To the contrary, the influx of some economic diversity into regions of the city can be a great thing – and I hope it works out for Dudley. The issue here, however, is that in ‘forgetting’ – or ‘whitewashing’ – the history of our urban neighborhoods, we leave ourselves open to repeating the past. And, worse than that, we run the risk of pointing ‘blame’ at the wrong people – or of assuming that gentrification itself is what ‘improved’ the area.
I don’t really believe that any newcomer to Dudley, or any other part of the city, will be totally blind to the area’s past – but the mural is a way for the current residents to tell their own story, in their own way. And that story isn’t simply that things are all good and the future is bright – it’s deeply rooted in the area’s past, and how the community got itself to where it is today. To attempt to subdue or erase these memories is to deprive the people who have worked so hard to build and improve this community [and others] of proper credit – and robs the neighborhood of aspects of itself that make it what it is today, and what it will be in the future.
[Oh, AND you’re crushing the artistic vision of our citys youth, you bastards]