By Seth Daniel
The wall along the tennis courts at Peters Park in the South End is a simple, 10-foot wall, but one that carries a tremendous amount of importance for the neighborhood’s longer term residents who saw some of the hardest times in the 1980s and 1990s along the Shawmut Street and Washington Street areas known as Old Dover.
It was a time when things were falling apart, and not being built up.
And the young artists who witnessed those times expressed what they saw on that wall – a wall that took on tremendous significance to those who participated in it or observed the use of it. Yet, at the same time, for others newer to the neighborhood, it was just a wall that was painted with a mural and abutted the tennis courts.
The wall was the first legal graffiti wall ever designated in the City by then-Mayor Ray Flynn in 1986.
It became a grass roots affair for young adults to express neighborhood issues within the context of graffiti or street art, most often bringing along young kids in the neighborhood to show them how to create alongside them. Murals on the wall have depicted warnings about drug abuse, highlighted songs by Jazz legend Billie Holiday, illustrated the Askia Toure poem ‘From the Pyramids to the Projects’ and, most recently in 2007, a tribute to Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts called ‘Soul Revival.’
“That wall has always been a grass roots thing,” said Victor Quinonez, who has put his work on the wall as Marka27. “There have been donations of supplies and things from Home Depot, but nobody has ever been paid to paint that wall. It’s always been self-funded. The last mural in 2007, the Parks Department gave us money, but that all went to supplies. First and foremost, that wall has served as an outlet for people around here to hone their skills. It was a place where if you did graffiti or street art, you could show your skills to the public in a safe haven…All of us learned from each other. There were always the older group of artists that taught the younger people and things got passed down like that.”
Many of those, like Quinonez and Robert Gibbs, have gone on to bigger things using the artistic skills they developed there on the wall.
So, it is a hallowed place to many of those in the African Latino Alliance (ALA) Collective who oversaw the wall in the old days, and those from City Lights who were involved in the early days with the murals as well.
However, it also recently served as a bumping of heads between those residents who lived in the South End for many years and grew up understanding what the wall meant, and those who are newer to the neighborhood and quite innocently wanted to spruce up Peters Park – yet didn’t quite understand the major significance of the wall for those who have used it.
Many newer residents had no idea about the history, and in an effort to uplift the park late last year, had seemingly taken over the oversight of the mural and what would go on the wall. Some in the Friends of Peters Park and the Old Dover Neighborhood Association had put out a call to artists and were going to decide themselves what would be painted on the graffiti wall.
It was then that the old and new got together, and after a short period of tension, all agreed to work together.
“Our involvement here is really simple,” said Quinonez. “We’re just trying to preserve the history of that wall…What was very important to us is we didn’t want a typical artist call where someone paints a mural and isn’t really familiar with the history of the neighborhood and ends up painting something that is a big miss.”
In that vein, had things progressed last fall, there could have been a ‘big miss,’ and the graffiti wall could have become a poster child, negative symbol of gentrification.
But that did not happen.
Instead, the City, Old Dover, Washington Gateway Main Street and the ALA Collective/City Lights got together to put out a new artist call. That went out last Friday and asked artists to submit conceptual designs for the $10,000 project by Feb. 26. All of those that are now cooperating are raising money for the effort and will be involved in deciding the winning concept.
“People who were interested in improving the park and put out the call for artists were newer and just didn’t understand the significance of the wall,” he said. “They are now focused on other improvements in the park.”
Rather than being exclusive, it will be a completely inclusive process – and one stipulation Quinonez said that is mandatory is any winning artist must be willing to work with young people from the neighborhood in creating the new mural. That is so the hallowed tradition of street art gets passed on once again in the new effort – as it did in all the old efforts.
“The Peters Park RFP is designed to bring local youth together with a professional artist, creating an opportunity for creative and cultural expression,” said Mayor Walsh. “Incorporating more public art into our neighborhoods brings vibrancy and value, and is an important part of our Boston Creates Cultural Plan. I look forward to seeing the proposals that are submitted for Peters Park.”
Washington Gateway Main Street is committed to helping to fund the mural, and they indicated this week that they will start a GoFundMe page shortly. Other efforts will be forthcoming.
“We feel really great about how it turned out because the group is now representative of most of the South End from City Lights to Old Dover to Washington Gateway,” he said. “You also have artists like myself and Robert Gibbs that are interested in the history of that wall. We’ll all be working together to ensure the decisions made are made fairly. It all got worked out. We’re excited because the last mural in 2007 had no plan to renovate or re-paint it. Going forward now, we plan on re-designing the wall every two years and brining in new artists and going through the same process.”