The Mural Mile on New Orleans’ St. Claude Avenue

graffiti on former hospital on St. Claude

New Orleans   For decades the ACORN headquarters has been somewhere around the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields Avenue.  We were ten blocks from the Mississippi River for many years, and we are again.  The old riddle used to be, “What street has its head in the river and its feet in the lake?”  The answer would be Elysian Fields.

Decades ago, there was no riddle that clung to St. Claude Avenue.  It was a no-man’s stretch of old furniture stores, fast food outlets, repair shops, garages, and whatever that stretched from Fauberg Marigny at the base of the historic French Quarter to the St. Bernard Parish line.  The avenue has a neutral ground, as it’s called in New Orleans, meaning a green space between the lanes of traffic on either side, and happens to be a state highway, which means that there is always an argument over whether the broke-ass city repairs it or the broke-ass state.  Need I say more?

Part of the legacy of St. Claude’s hardcore, working class history is being challenged by increasing gentrification in both Marigny and Bywater.  House prices have soared.  Hipsters are ubiquitous.  A new restaurant or bar seems to open – or close – every week.  Magazines and newspapers regularly list Bywater as one of the best or most livable or whatever the flavor of the month might be, neighborhoods in the country.  This is a city, so one of the responses somewhere between anarchistic vandalism and guerilla resistance has been a proliferation of graffiti.  Increasingly, what had been random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and street art.

Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and office mural

 

First, murals were a last-ditch effort at property defense.  Our building on St. Claude had two long fences, one a wooden fence between Beauty Plus on the corner of St. Claude and our property and the other a plain cinder block wall behind our gate leading to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in the back of our building.  Four years ago, we recruited a young muralist named Danae, someone knew from Montreal, who painted an allegorical mural from street to building about ACORN, Fair Grinds, and the recovery of New Orleans from Katrina.  Graffiti was a constant problem at Beauty Plus.  Every few months the owner grey-washed the building, but nothing seemed to stop the vandalism.  The same problem was constant on our wooden fence.  Finally, in desperation I told the Beauty Plus owner I was going to have a mural painted on the fence.  He scoffed at my waste of time, but said “good luck” to my foolishness.  A former barista and artist, Maddie Stratton took the job on, and got it done, and damned if it didn’t work.  Graffiti continued to be a problem at Beauty Plus, but not at our building.  Problem solved!

Beauty Plus murals

Fast forward until now, and we have Mural Mile.  Beauty Plus learned the lesson and is now covered with murals.  Tourists and passersby regularly stop traffic to take pictures.  Part of our old building has a mural.  Harriet Tubman is across the street on a fence.  Down the block a Big Freedia does her thing.  Fats Domino and Aretha Franklin have their places in the mile along with second line and neighborhood bands.  Businesses from nurseries to the local food coop are part of the trend now.  Even in the midst of the neighborhood changing since Katrina from 70% nonwhite in the Bywater to 70% white under gentrification assault, the roots and reality of the city continue to be everywhere, larger than life in the Mural Mile along with catfish and pelicans.

next door to our building

Harriet Tubman

Big Freedia

Fats Domino

This is street art and still part of the resistance, since the Historic District Commission which includes these neighborhoods still wants to insist that they should be allowed to permit and license muralists and murals between $50 and $500.  Rumor has it that some group is paying muralists to spite the regulations believing free speech should be allowed on private properties.

Food Co-op

area St. Claude & Franklin

The movement creating the Mural Mile is art and civic beautification.  Even past the Mural Mile on St. Claude there are still signs that the people are everywhere in one sign past the railroad tracks that warns the police that people – and their cameras – are watching.

warning to police that cameras are watching

 

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Museums for the People, Rather than the Elites

Street Art Museum in Amsterdam

New Orleans   Ok, maybe it’s not the very highest thing on everyone’s list, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Recently, we talked about the efforts to rid books like Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States from school libraries and classrooms. We all know that’s wrong, but how about the constant efforts to erase peoples’ history, by just not telling it at all? Or, not making it accessible? Or, the constant elite cultural and political bias reflected in most museums of any kind? Well, it’s not a tidal wave, but there is at least a slow dripping of resistance and activism that is trying to imagine and implement a different kind of museum.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on a unique museum in London called the Museum of Homelessness, which not surprisingly does not have a physical building or location, which given the subject matter seems appropriate. The organizers see their museum as being “about doing something special, about creating events where you’re taken on a journey.” Their venues are often open spaces, including on the streets themselves, or in theaters, shelters, or temporary showings from friendly cultural institutions.

The Street Art Museum in a neighborhood of Amsterdam is another experiment along these lines. This novelty consists of 90 commissioned works in a 1.5 mile square area which are linked through a walking tour conducted by the museum. Another effort is the Museum of Joy in San Francisco which does pop-up operas at mass transit stations and hides happy experiences in gold colored Easter eggs in a dozen branches of the city public library. There’s also the touring Empathy Museum in a shipping container that looks like a shoe box and displays shoes, urging people to imagine themselves walking in the path of those lives.

These efforts have a common theme of bringing museums to people rather than waiting for people to come to them. There are other efforts, some of which we have discussed before, like photographic museums of city life on web and Facebook sites, including the ACORN Museum. There may not be a thousand flowers blooming, but there are definitely some sprouting up around the world.

This is all exciting stuff, but fragile, and perhaps unsustainable. Grants that might support such experiments are largely hogged by huge institutions and on the chopping block with the gutting of the Endowment for the Arts proposed in the current Administration budget. Giving large institutions their due, there are certainly curators who knock on the door of social change with some exhibits and programs, though that does eliminate the questions of access and audience along with cost, all of which are central in considering the collection and distribution of peoples’ history.

A lot of us aren’t throwing away any artifacts or remnants of the silent history of uncommon common people, but there’s still a long gap in knowing where to put them before they end up, like so many other things, in the dustbin of history.

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