Could Black Lives Matter mural pave the way for more decorative street painting projects?

By Lee Chilcote

The Black Lives Matter mural on East 93rd Street in Cleveland’s Woodland Hills neighborhood has drawn thousands of people and played host to gospel choirs and prayer services since it was painted June 20th. Now, city leaders say they’ll keep the street closed until after July 4th to accommodate the wave of visitors they anticipate over the holiday weekend.

The mural was painted by more than 100 local artists in honor of members of the black community who have died at the hands of law enforcement over the years. Public art groups R.A.K.E. and Graffiti HeArt led the effort.

“Each artist had their own space, and the community just jumped in and started helping,” says Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin, who was there with Mayor Frank Jackson Monday afternoon chatting with visitors and residents. “Ever since it opened, we’ve had carloads of people showing up because they wanted to see it.”

While the mural has drawn condemnation from Black Lives Matter Cleveland, who says it papers over the inactions of city council and the administration regarding real police reform, it has also shown how residents can turn the streets into their own canvasses, beautifying their neighborhoods while showcasing demands for racial justice.  

“All of what we’re doing right now in government is unprecedented,” says Griffin, who was able to secure emergency approvals from the city in less than 48 hours since the agencies that normally provide the approvals couldn’t meet easily. “There is no script.”

Actually, there is one, at least when it comes to decorative street painting in the city of Cleveland. In 2016, Cleveland City Council passed legislation creating a decorative street painting program for the purpose of “making city streets attractive environments; encouraging and supporting communities to work cooperatively to beautify neighborhoods; encouraging civic engagement; and encouraging well-designed, creative and aesthetically pleasing decorative street paintings that relate to the history and culture of the neighborhood,” according to the city’s code.

Groups must submit an application to the Director of Capital Projects, including the signatures of at least 51 percent of the owners of property within a 200-foot radius of the location, indicating approval. Street painting can only occur on alleyways or residential streets (not major commercial thoroughfares) and cannot contain any “numerals, text, or commercial messages.”

Given the urgency, the Black Lives Matter mural clearly did not have to go through all of these steps. Griffin says it was necessary to sidestep bureaucracy in the midst of a pandemic and racial equity movement. “This biggest issue was the people were going to do it anyway, and I stepped in to make sure they had the guidelines to do it,” he explains. “It’s a form of protest, in a way.”

Buckeye resident Dawn Arrington, who was involved in City Repair Cleveland, a project of Neighborhood Connections modeled after a similar group in Portland, Oregon, says she tried with other residents to complete a decorative street painting project several years ago. However, the city denied their permit, citing concerns that it would distract drivers and create safety hazards. Eventually, the city passed an ordinance allowing them to paint an alleyway, and that legislation was later expanded into the current program.

“I was out watching them paint and remembered years ago when a group of residents wanted to do the same exact thing and the system told us no,” says Arrington. “It took the violence and sacrifice of more black lives for this to happen. I think it’s great, but it does make me wonder about the sincerity of the effort. It makes me wonder about what becomes an emergency. They could have just listened to us the first time.”

It’s not clear how many applications have been submitted to the decorative street painting program, but the Black Lives Matter mural is certainly the most prominent example. City Repair programs in Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Charlotte, North Carolina and other cities have painted hundreds of streets and intersections. There is little cost to cities in allowing residents to paint their streets, other than closing them down temporarily, and projects typically only take a few hours and cost $500-1,200 to implement.

Given the success of Cleveland’s Black Lives Matter mural, Griffin and others are now working on ways to preserve it. Although they considered closing the street down to one lane in each direction, that’s not an option since East 93rd is a major thoroughfare. Griffin and others are researching the possibility of applying a protective coating so that the mural will last longer.

When asked Monday whether the city’s quick approval means there will be less red tape in future decorative street painting applications, Mayor Jackson demurred: “It depends. We’re taking it on a case by case basis.” Then he said, “We let this one happen.”

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