The rise and (imminent) fall of Boston’s only graffiti park
Rosa Parks, Mr. Miyagi, and the Incredible Hulk gaze down from the wall, their faces nearly big enough to drive a bus through. A giraffe in a space helmet floats carelessly through the light purple cosmos. And if you squint hard enough at the psychedelic, curved puzzle pieces that cover a ten-by-ten foot canvas, you can just barely make out three words: “Art is Life.”
This barely begins to cover the intricate murals found at the Bartlett Yard, an 8.6-acre parcel of land just blocks away from Dudley Square in Roxbury, formerly used as a bus garage by the MBTA. Since the beginning of the year, the property’s owners have allowed an event planning group called Bartlett Events to turn half of the property into a community art space.
In May, Bartlett Events held Mural Fest, an open call for graffiti muralists which drew an estimated 1,000 artists and community members together in a frenzy of aerosol, transforming the Yard from a 125-year-old dilapidated bus garage into the massive public art installation.
But if you want to take in the art at Bartlett Yard, however, you’d better do it soon.
Come this November it’ll all be torn down to begin construction of Bartlett Place, a mixed-use development of housing with—in all likelihood—no graffiti. This as the result of a drawn-out process of Roxbury’s redevelopment that has put a complex, touchy word on the lips of some its residents: “gentrification.”
Writing on the Walls
“The first thing we did was clean out all of the needles,” said Blake Jurasian, a junior at Berklee College of Music from New Orleans, as he steps into one of the Bartlett Yard’s cavernous garages. The space seems to be falling apart. Heaps of rubble and plaster sit in haphazard piles around the floor alongside empty beer and spray cans.
“People had definitely been squatting here before we moved in,” Jurasin said.
The Bartlett Bus Yard has been out of commission since the late nineties, following a community-led effort to shut it down due to concerns about bus exhaust contributing to high rates of childhood asthma in the area. Since then the Yard has been abandoned, put to use only by the area’s homeless population and subject to a slow process of decay.
With a few weekends’ worth of hard work, however, several dozen volunteers were able to clean out most of the Yard’s two main buildings and surrounding blacktop prior to opening day.
Jason Turgeon, an environmental scientist from Highland Park and one of the three founders of Bartlett Events, says that the goal of opening the yard up on weekends was to create a community art space, not a muralist’s paradise. But the supply of talent proved to be just too great.
“We put out the call for folks to come by during Mural Fest, and over 100 muralists came down,” Turgeon said.
Now there’s hardly a surface in Bartlett Yard that isn’t covered in graffiti. And not just basic tags, either—most of the pieces found at the Yard are elegant and complex, ranging from the whimsical (a lavender ship on a deep purple sea, sailing off into a starry horizon) to the bizarre (a contorted naked man in a plastic ball pit vomiting up another naked man).
“When I first saw it, it was just this abandoned bus station,” Jurasin said. “When I came back after Mural Fest, it was amazing.”
Although Turgeon provided much of the inspiration for the site, the formal processes of permitting and insuring were handled by his partner Jeremy Alliger, executive producer of the arts and performance non-profit Alliger Arts. With the help of Mark Matel, a project manager with the Roxbury community developer Nuestra Comunidad, the two were able to negotiate a contract allowing them use of the Yard on weekends.
To date Bartlett Events has hosted eight events in the space, featuring bands, artists, and organizations from across the city—they even brought in an Ethiopian dance crew.
“It addressed one of the social missions we’re trying to accomplish with the space. Healthy neighborhoods around Boston that I visit all have two things paired together: public space and a commercial core,” Matel said.
Currently, Dudley Square’s only space for events like those is Dudley Square Plaza, a measly plot of land situated in front of the neighborhood’s new $17.5 million police station. Otherwise, the next nearest space to host large events is at Franklin Park, set over a mile away from Roxbury’s major commercial hub.
“Well … You Can’t Exactly Do This in Newton”
Roslindale web developer and graffiti artist Rob Larsen first started writing graffiti in Boston 30 years ago. He recalls that, unlike other cities at the time with burgeoning street art scenes like Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles, Boston never accepted graffiti in the same way—a trend that’s led to the city’s current lack of space for big, public graffiti projects, and what made Larsen jump at the chance to tag a garage door during Mural Fest.
“In L.A. people will work on spaces for a long time, taking a 90 foot long wall and adding to it. It’s part of the culture. In Boston, you had things like the handball court on Washington Street in Roxbury, until it was shut down a few years ago. There’s nothing public, legal, and accessible,” Larsen said.
In addition, Larsen notes, Boston has a much different sense of urban sprawl than the lower-income and graffiti-friendlier boroughs of New York City or Los Angeles. You won’t find an area like Brooklyn’s 5 Points or L.A.’s Melrose Avenue anywhere around here.
“Everything in Boston is gentrified, or in the process of being gentrified,” Larsen said. “And, well … you can’t exactly do this in Newton.”
Not that doing it in Boston is a cakewalk. Despite having a team with a strong background in event planning, from the start the Bartlett Yard’s team has had some trouble getting their project operational, publicized, and fully accepted by the community.
The trouble began when Turgeon first approached the city with his plan to turn a forgotten bus garage into a community arts space. Although Bartlett Events had the explicit permission of Nuestra Comunidad—who has owned the property since 2010— to operate at Bartlett Yard, Turgeon found himself held back by Boston’s labyrinthine permitting process.
“The city doesn’t know how to do anything unusual,” Turgeon said. “It took two trips to City Hall, two trips to the police station, and a trip to Inspectional Services just to put speakers up on sticks.”
Then, in late April, Turgeon was thwarted by the Boston Police Department when he and group of eight artists called “Team Rekloos” began work on a large piece that would cover what was to be the Yard’s pièce de résistance:
a mural on the main garage’s outer Washington Street-facing wall dedicated to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
“The cops just said ‘permits’ and shut it down. We were using a scissor lift, which would have required us to pay $32 per hour for a police detail,” Turgeon said.
Meanwhile, some community members voiced concerns about having a ‘Boston Strong’ mural in Roxbury, where the violence that regularly occurs in the neighborhood is so rarely acknowledged. Or, as a letter to the Boston Globe put it: “Support notwithstanding, paint and murals don’t cover the blights of unspeakable violence that Roxbury residents endure every day.”
Eventually Turgeon and his team decided to drop the project. All that remains of the mural-that-never-was is a few scattered pieces of graffiti, the outlines of what look like two children, and half a wall’s worth of empty black space.
The biggest hurdle the team now faces is that of awareness. There’s a distinct difficulty, Turgeon notes, in getting those from Boston’s largely white areas, and those with connections to the Boston art world to come to Roxbury.
“There are a lot of prejudices against this part of town. You say ‘Roxbury’ and the art community goes ‘eh’,” Turgeon said.
Meanwhile, if you want to see street art in Boston you have to go a place like the Institute for Contemporary Art, just a few miles from Dudley Square. There you’ll find the works of street artists like Os Gemeos and Barry McGee on display, far from the perceived dangers and marginality of Roxbury, safe inside the sanitized halls of a downtown art gallery.
It’s this paradigm that the new development at the Bartlett Yard will hope to shift in the coming years—a shift that will require, unfortunately, destroying Roxbury’s biggest public art space in recent history.
All Falls Down
Plans to demolish the Bartlett Garage have been in place since at least 2006. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan (RSMP)—a multi-pronged, ongoing blueprint for the neighborhood’s planned redevelopment over the next decade—named the Bartlett Yard as one of several pieces of land to be sold off by the city, to make way for a combination of approximately 315 low-income and market-rate housing units, along with some street-level retail.
But any hopes of quickly flipping the property were dashed when the Recession struck. With the housing market in peril, no one was putting shovels in the ground on new construction projects, particularly in low-income neighborhoods like Roxbury. One of the only serious offers put forward for the Bartlett Yard during this period came from Wal-Mart, whose offer to open a grocery store on the property was quickly rebuffed by Mayor Menino.
The MBTA faced another challenge in offloading the Yard: the ground was—and remains—poisoned.
According to an assessment of the property by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the land on which Bartlett Yard rests is “contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and metals.” In EPA terminology, it’s what’s known as a “brownfield,” or a plot of land unsuitable for development because of the presence of hazardous substance.
The EPA has approved $1 million in grant funding to clean up the brownfield at Bartlett Yard, including a $400,000 grant issued just a week before Mural Fest. This is just a drop in the bucket, however, considering that the Yard’s current owners Nuestra Communidad and its partner Windale Developers will spend a projected $145 million over the next decade developing the property.
Both the results of Mural Fest and the impending construction of a new housing complex on Washington Street have drawn some calls of ‘gentrification’ from community members, who have watched new buildings in the area—like the six-story, $115 million Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square—rise with a wary eye.
“They saw what happened in the South End, where low-income people were priced out, and they don’t want it to happen here,” Mark Matel said.
The plans for Bartlett Place may not assuage those fears. In addition to low-income housing units, Nuestra Comunidad wants Bartlett Place to maintain the spirit of the graffiti park at Bartlett Yard by turning it into a “creative village,” where artists could live and be paid to produce works of public art on the 8.6 acre lot. They will also encourage small tech and medical companies to take up shop in the 20,000 square feet of commercial office space planned for the Yard, both moves that would seem to lend credence to the “gentrification” argument.
But Matel thinks bringing in some middle-income Bostonians into Roxbury might not be such a bad idea. To him it’s much worse to have low-income people sectioned of in a neighborhood with minimal access to public transportation, in the middle of a food desert, and the highest unemployment rate in the city.
“It’s a broader social issue that can’t just be solved by new housing, but housing is part of the problem,” Matel said.
There have long been plans in place for Bartlett Yard, it seems—plans to hopefully bring economic rejuvenation to Roxbury, plans to make the area a better place to live, plans that certainly don’t involve a graffiti playground. Despite Nuestra Communidad’s desire to make a “creative village” in the heart of Roxbury, it’s almost certain that nothing more than a trace of the Bartlett Yard’s current form will remain after the November demolition.
Looking across the rooftops of the old bus garage, it’s hard not to wonder why no one is trying to save it from demolition.
Surely some group of activist-artists would jump at the chance to preserve this rare gem, in a city largely devoid of space for big public spaces street art?
Part of it may be a sad truth: a space like this could only really exist in Boston because it’s going to be demolished to make way for what’s really needed here: a new source of tax revenue and a grocery store. For Jason Turgeon, however, the notion of trying to create a permanent graffiti museum would simply miss the point.
“I come from the Burning Man world, so I know that art doesn’t have to be here forever. Some people say, ‘You have to save this!’ And I say ‘No, it’s okay. There will be more art after this.’” Turgeon said.
So, for the time being, the Bartlett Yard will stand as a testament to the best Boston’s graffiti culture has to offer: intricate designs, pop culture throwbacks, wild colorations, and a sense of reclaimed space.
And like nearly all graffiti it will be removed, a sign of the medium’s transitory nature and a neighborhood that is, itself, in transition.