Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Eastside community leader Nettie Hinton embraces them - or at least she knows how to work one. After District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil washed her hands of the uproar over the Nolan Street graffiti mural, Hinton and some of her Dignowity Hill neighbors moved ahead with their plans to whitewash the colorful paintings, which cover both sides of the train underpass at Nolan and Cherry, just East of downtown.
Here's your Cliffs Notes on the artwork's brief but troubled history: Some neighborhood residents are adamantly opposed to the mural - created in July during the 5th Annual Clogged Caps festival - because they feel they weren't consulted, although Dignowity Hill association prez Dianne Green admitted that she may have dropped the ball after McNeil's office contacted her about the project. On the other hand, Mashup noted in a September 20 column that McNeil's PR for the project was not exactly forthcoming. The artists, who came from all over the U.S., are the clear losers, because sooner or later, the councilwoman and the association agreed, the mural is going to be replaced.
Showing a natural brilliance for gaming the system, Hinton put the City's Sweep team - a cleanup program operated through the City's Neighborhood Action Department - on the job, which took care of two concerns: the cost of enough Kilz to cover the large mural, and labor. Working on Saturday, student volunteers managed to erase all four tail ends of the mural before the City called and said they were told to quit (the mural's centerpieces remain intact for now).
The stop order came from McNeil's office, which irks Hinton. "Now `McNeil`'s putting some restrictions and saying you can't take it down unless you have something to put in its place," says Hinton, adding that the neighborhood had the councilwoman's go-ahead to whitewash now, repaint later. But McNeil told the Current that an agreement to paint over the mural in October expired when the association didn't submit a plan before the month was up. "The agreement was that we would have a plan to put up a new mural when we whitewashed it," she said.
I know, I know. Trying to follow this story is like watching a beginners' tennis match. Weak back-n-forth, lots of dropped serves and volleys, boring if your kid's not in the game. But here's why I care and you should, too: This conflict in many ways is about tension in a neighborhood that is undergoing immense change.
For Hinton, her objection to the mural is rooted in the neighborhood's right to choose the art that represents it, and especially its historic role in the City's Black community. "`The mural`'s not our vision, but it's our community," she told the Current in September. "It celebrates a community that's not ours."
But the face of that community is changing rapidly, not least because it has become a neighborhood of choice for artists fleeing the escalating home prices in Southtown and other areas. "I remember at the `first` meeting `between the Clogged Caps artists and the association` that there was that yelling match," says Cruz Ortiz, who lives in Dignowity Hill. "Whether you like it or not, there are a lot of people moving into this neighborhood and staying. We talk about neighborhood revitalization and one of the big assets is artists. These kinds of actions turn people away."
Hinton says she is putting together a blue-ribbon commission to approve a new mural plan that would include Office of Cultural Affairs Director Felix Padrón, public-art veteran Bill FitzGibbons (who designed the "Light Channels" on Commerce and Market), and others. But Ortiz, who is on the neighborhood association's art committee with Hinton, says he doesn't even feel included in the committee's discussions. (BTW: Ortiz, a co-founder of San Anto Cultural Arts, which is well-known for its Westside mural projects, gives the Clogged Caps mural a positive review, although he agrees the organizers could have done a better job of reaching out to the community: "That's just a no-brainer.")
One way to make sure that art and technical know-how and community input are incorporated would be to address the mural through the City's Public Art program, which has jurisdiction over public-design enhancements. But McNeil says she wants the process to remain in the neighborhood. "I want them to have ownership," she says.
Design Enhancement Program Coordinator James LeFlore says the conflict comes down to trust: "I think it's a growth issue; when they grow to trust one another they're going to see a benefit from it. Just as with any relationship it takes a lot of patience and a lot of time.
"I guess it's also true you can't choose your neighbors."