Murals: An emerging form of community development
Many cities find urban art can be transformative
THE WALLS OF the affordable housing buildings in The Point neighborhood of Salem have been painted for as long as 15-year-old Bunny Spodick can remember. For a long time, they were painted with nasty messages and graffiti, giving the neighborhood a dim, dark feel, she said.
Then El Punto Urban Art Museum started in 2017, bringing 75 large-scale murals to the neighborhood over the last five years. Spodick, a teenager with red-streaked hair who lives in the community, said the bright colors have generated uplifting energy. “The Point’s always The Point,” Spodick said. “But it shows people a little of what’s going on, that it’s not just a shitty neighborhood. People may be lower income, but they’re still people.”
Public art may not solve the problems of employment or housing faced by poorer residents of Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities. But over the last several years, organizations have turned to public art to transform inner city neighborhoods, improving safety, attracting tourists, and enhancing community pride. The El Punto Urban Art Museum is thriving in Salem. Beyond Walls, a nonprofit that commissioned more than 60 murals in Lynn, plans to expand this summer into Holyoke, Fall River, and Lowell. Other organizations – Elevated Thought in Lawrence, the New Bedford Creative coalition, New and There in Boston – are creating similar murals around the state. A nonprofit called Common Wealth Murals has supported installations in Springfield and Fitchburg.
Those involved in the efforts say they are paying off, with more positive activity on the streets by residents and visitors. The results of the efforts in Salem and Lynn provide an example of what that can look like.
In Lynn, Katherine Herbst-Rubio, development and communications manager at Beyond Walls, said areas that used to attract primarily drug users and homeless people now have businesses and customer foot traffic. An alley near a staffing agency and commuter rail station, which many people used to avoid, now has lights and murals and is nicknamed “love alley” for a brightly colored mural displaying the word “LOVE.”
“I often see tourists, which we never saw before, with cameras following a map that provides a glimpse of the murals,” said State Rep. Dan Cahill, a Lynn Democrat and former Lynn city council president.
Both the Lynn and Salem initiatives started around five years ago, El Punto through the CDC and Beyond Walls through the efforts of founder Al Wilson, a digital media professional who had worked in Lynn. Both had similar goals: beautify and bring pride to struggling city neighborhoods.
Many public art projects bring gentrification, with the danger of displacing current residents. The murals of El Punto Urban Art Museum, however, are built almost entirely on public housing projects, which are permanently designated by deed as affordable housing.
“Oftentimes when art is going into communities, that’s part of gentrification that usually happens,” said Ashley Ganem, marketing and special events manager for the North Shore Community Development Corporation. “Art goes up, breweries go into the neighborhood, housing prices go up, people who live in those communities can no longer afford those. Our hope is that because these are affordable housing properties and they’re deed restricted, nothing’s going to change….[Residents] don’t have to leave just because it’s now beautiful to live there.”
“The murals haven’t changed the identity of The Point,” Ganem said.
Walking around The Point, the artwork bursts with color, on prominent facades and in back alleys. A parking lot behind the CDC building has lights strung up and a mural along one wall with the word “identity” written in shades of blue, green, and yellow. Overlooking the lot is a portrait of a woman named Lorenza, a long-time Dominican resident of The Point known for informally helping residents. Since the lights and art were installed, residents have started using the space for community events, as an outdoor classroom, and as a space for teenagers to record music videos.
In another alleyway behind affordable housing buildings, a cartoonish monkey-like character is painted on one wall, a large owl on another. Aridia Torres, who lives in the neighborhood and works as a building cleaner, said she is wowed by the art, which she called “muy linda,” Spanish for very beautiful. “It brings a different perspective and brings people in to learn more about the art,” Torres said in Spanish.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said the open-air museum, the majority of which spans three city blocks, provides an opportunity for residents to see art done by artists who have similar backgrounds to theirs. The artwork is done by a mix of local artists and national and international ones, many from countries that reflect the heritage of the neighborhood’s residents, including Colombia, Spain, and Mexico. “It’s quite a source of pride for individuals who live in the community, who grew up in The Point, where living in a dense urban neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty there weren’t always opportunities for them to celebrate who they were,” Driscoll said.
The Point has long been an immigrant neighborhood. It was built up around the Pequot Mills cotton mill, which operated from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Then, it was largely populated by French Canadians. Now, the neighborhood is primarily Latino. It’s a residential neighborhood, with some bodegas, restaurants, and other stores, and without much green space.
The Point is only blocks away from the heavily touristed downtown Salem, which draws visitors to witch-related attractions, recalling Salem’s history with the notorious Salem Witch Trials, and the Peabody Essex Museum. Until the murals were painted, The Point was an area where tourists were warned not to venture.
At-large Salem city councilor Domingo Dominguez said outsiders used to fear The Point and consider it a low-class neighborhood. Today, the art has become an attraction, and tourists make the short detour on their downtown visits. “By bringing the murals into The Point, it’s increased the morale of the whole neighborhood and the entire city of Salem,” Dominguez said. “People now know The Point is there. People know The Point is not what they thought. People know the beauty of art unified everybody.”
Northcutt said outsiders now refer to the area as El Punto, which he sees as a sign of respect to the members of the Caribbean and Dominican community that live there. They have long used that name themselves.
Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat who used to patrol The Point as a police officer, described it as a vibrant Latino neighborhood with hard-working residents who take pride in their community. “What the art has done is really helped to put a stamp on the neighborhood with that pride,” Tucker said. Tucker said there has also been an economic impact, since visitors who come to see the murals may also eat at a local restaurant.
State Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, said when she moved to Salem from Beverly 40 years ago, The Point and its Latino residents seemed segregated from the rest of the city. “I think having this El Punto open air art museum has really broken down those barriers and has invited the community in,” Lovely said.
In Lynn, Wilson came up with the idea for Beyond Walls after attending local community meetings organized through the state agency MassDevelopment, where residents raised concerns about the walkability and safety of downtown. Beyond Walls started with a project of lighting dark underpasses, then morphed into the creation of large-scale art installations. Since COVID hit, the organization branched out to other placemaking projects – installing outdoor handwashing stations and creating modular barriers for restaurants’ outdoor dining. Their work is paid for by grants and fundraising. Beyond Walls also built on its art installations by writing curriculum used by Lynn Public Schools and local after-school programs to teach about art and the cultures the murals represent.
Lynn’s effort is focused primarily on the downtown business district.
Cahill, the Lynn state representative, said the city has been working on transforming its downtown since the early 2000s when a zoning change brought in more mixed-use development, combining housing and retail. Before that, Lynn’s downtown had lots of empty storefronts and crime. As more housing was built and restaurants and coffee shops began opening, Lynn established an arts and cultural district downtown. As Greater Boston has seen property values skyrocket, more people are turning to Lynn, which has a commuter rail stop, as an affordable alternative, which is spurring more development.
Beyond Walls has been part of that revitalization. The organization hires artists to paint murals on private commercial and residential buildings. Until COVID, it held annual block parties where a group of artists would come and paint simultaneously.
“It makes the city seem vibrant and new and to a certain extent hip,” said Cahill, who can see several murals out the windows of his downtown law office.
Of course, the art is not a panacea. Some of the murals in downtown Lynn are on uninhabitable or abandoned buildings. A mural of a woman wearing hair rollers surrounded by plantain leaves, used to teach students about Dominican culture, was recently lost when the building was torn down. On one abandoned building, with broken windows and litter in its parking lot, a gorilla is painted on one wall in a mural that includes an “entering Lynn” sign and a picture of dominos, a popular local pastime.
“Public art is always a temporary thing, it’s a matter of how long,” Herbst-Rubio said. She argued that having murals on an abandoned building is worthwhile “to increase the beauty.” She added: “It increases civic pride. People are less likely to throw trash into the place.”
A mural of a shoemaker reflects Lynn’s history as a shoemaking capital. A portrait of a child has words written in Khmer, a tribute to Lynn’s Cambodian community. The side of an eight-story building is covered by a portrait of a young Black man who lives there, a videographer known for his kindness. One artist used recycled materials found in the neighborhood – part of a tire, a recycling bin, a hose, a hard hat – to craft a large rat.
Herbst-Rubio is giving a tour when an elderly woman stops her and complains that community members should have more input. She objects to a portrait of scantily clad women near a bar and dislikes another mural that has disembodied body parts. Herbst-Rubio tells the woman to look out for flyers for the next community input meeting.
Both El Punto and Beyond Walls are working on expanding. The North Shore CDC plans to open two art galleries in newly renovated affordable housing buildings. Beyond Walls is planning two-week events this summer in Holyoke, Fall River, and Lowell with local partner organizations where artists will install murals rooted in each community’s cultural diversity. Holyoke’s murals will reflect its new designation as a Puerto Rican cultural District, Fall River’s will be influenced by Portuguese culture, while Lowell’s will reflect Cambodian art.
Giles Li, a senior program officer at the Barr Foundation, which has given grants to El Punto and Beyond Walls, said Massachusetts has traditionally created public art that is static and looks toward the past – statues of war heroes or generals on horses. The new model is about creating art that is relevant to the host community. “Having public art is in itself helpful and useful, but it’s got to be public art that’s engaging to people, that makes people want to go out and see it,” Li said.Li said representing immigrants, people of color, and others who historically have been excluded from public art in murals creates a sense of civic pride and of being valued. “We see public art basically every day, and a lot of time people take it for granted or just don’t think about it,” Li said. “But if you don’t see yourself and your own community reflected in the art that makes up the environment, that can take a toll. In a place like Lynn or Salem or other Gateway Cities around the state, it’s become really important to invest in lifting up the visibility of the communities that are in those places.”