Monday, October 31, 2016

Murals, Mondrian, and Gentrification

Ellen Wilson Dwellings building, August 1988.
During the summer of 1988, a local homeowner commissioned a 30-foot mural, copying a modernist artwork of Piet Mondrian on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings on Capitol Hill. Above is the painted building, and below is the building, as seen from the 6th Street, SE, freeway underpass, before it was painted:   
Ellen Wilson Dwelling, early summer 1988. 
This mural faced a freeway and was joined by two smaller Mondrian murals in the freeway underpass across the street. By 1992, he had commissioned 13 Mondrian murals in the underpass, in addition to the 30-foot mural.
SE Freeway Underpass. 
You can still see the murals in the underpass, but the 30-foot mural was demolished along with the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in 1996.

In November 1988, just months after the first three murals were completed, the DC Housing Authority moved all the residents out of the public housing project for a long-planned renovation of the buildings. Soon after, however, the project lay vacant and later was demolished, leaving the former residents permanently displaced.

I have spent the summer researching a series of questions: What role did the murals play in the permanent displacement of the public housing residents? What kind of work did the Mondrian murals perform on Capitol Hill at the end of the 1980s? The story has been surprising, to say the least.

Here is just one small finding: The late 1980s was a time of worldwide return to gentrification and displacement (see this previous post). From my research over the past year, I have come to understand that this block lay on a long contested racial line (see this previous post). One can see the murals as an early form of "tactical urbanism," as Amanda Kolson Hurley discussed in the Post a few days ago:
Tactical urbanism — which also goes by “DIY urbanism” or “creative placemaking” — uses small, often short-term fixes (like an artistically painted intersection) to promote wider and more permanent changes to a city (like reclaiming streets for walkers and cyclists).
We can thus see the Mondrian murals in some way reclaiming land and promoting wider and more permanent changes to the city. As Hurley discusses, only certain members of the community are considered legitimate initiators of or participants in DIY urbanism, which Eric Shaw, DC director of planning, notes in the article: “if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” City planners often perceive similar activities by lower-income groups and especially by non-whites as illegitimate and thus not given the label "DIY urbanism," but, as Hurley notes:
"There’s been tactical urbanism in lower-income communities,” argues Veronica O. Davis, a civil engineer and urban-planning consultant in the District. “It’s called graffiti.” The problem, she says, is the gap between the largely white and middle-class planning profession and the general public. “What’s the difference between a mural, which is paint on the wall, and graffiti, which is paint on the wall?
The local, Capitol Hill media, in fact, understood the Mondrian murals as giant graffiti put up by a "brave" homeowner, as part of battle over the Ellen Wilson Dwellings space. During the late 1980s return to gentrification, these murals were in competition with other graffiti with their own claims over the area, which those in the media and local homeowners deemed illegitimate.

But why murals of Mondrian's art? What were these specific art pieces communicating? More in a future post.

Images are from the Smithsonian Institution Archive, Warren M. Robbins papers: 1) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 76, Folder Warren M. Robbins - Mondrian murals, August 1988, 2) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988. 3) SIA 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988 [image must have been taken later].