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In the first week of June, more than a thousand volunteers from Americorps’ City Year organization celebrated their national convention with an orgy of altruism in Ward 2: planting flowers around the Park Morton housing project, resodding Garrison Elementary’s playing field, and painting the halls of Shaw Junior High School.
City Year’s philanthropy hit a snag, however, when the volunteers moved to revamp an abandoned retail complex in Shaw. The original idea, says Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who helped City Year coordinate its activities, was to decorate the building at the corner of 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue with an inspirational mural memorializing black historian Carter G. Woodson.
“It made a lot of sense to have something interpretive of Dr. Woodson that people could see from [Woodson Park]” on 9th Street, says Padro. “[The volunteers] really just wanted to do something that would be transformative for the neighborhood in a positive sense.”
On June 3, a City Year artist sketched a rough outline for the mural onto the building, which three years ago served as a trashed-out homestead for addicts and prostitutes. Woodson’s bust appeared large and to the left, while quotes from his writings, a map of Africa, and silhouettes of black entertainers, sports figures, and African natives crowded the artwork’s outskirts.
By the next day, says Padro, the design had incorporated another element. Scrawled over the outline of Africa was an angry graffito: “This is America, not Africa.” Throughout the week, new waves of fly-by criticism appeared all over the sketch, each statement crafted in the same blue penwork: “Shaw is not Soweto,” “End D.C. Apartheid,” and other phrases now painted over.
The mural’s ad hoc additions were the work of Ray Milefsky, a government worker who lives around the block on Q Street. The Washington City Paper covered Milefsky in February 2002 when he painted his own murals onto the Q Street side of the same complextwo fake cafe façades titled “Patisserie Imaginaire” and “Bistrot au Ghetto.” City Year’s mural, though, did not meet Milefsky’s standards for community art.
“I don’t want to see that thing going up there,” says Milefsky. “Some dogoodnik organization decided they’re going to bring a little cheer into our blighted community, but we need the buildings fixed up. This mural just perpetuates our ghetto status….You’re not doing Carter Woodson any favors by plastering his face on a whorehouse.”
Milefsky says the mural’s inclusion of African symbols casts the neighborhood as a “black homeland,” when it’s actually racially diverse. “It’s historical revisionism,” he says. “It only reinforces the neighborhood stereotype that whites are newcomers and should be out.”
A more appropriate mural for the neighborhood, suggests Milefsky, would focus on racially neutral images such as flowers, trees, birds, that sort of thing. “I’d thought I’d seen enough flags since 9/11…but even a flag would be all right,” he says.
Padro says he received only one complaint about the design: Milefsky’s. Still, he made a concession to neighborhood dissent: After Milefsky demanded an investigation of the design, Padro met with the artist and City Year coordinators, one of whom suggested inserting next to the African continent a map of the United States. Padro agreed to the change.
Rain delayed painting this past weekend. Now Padro is unsure of when the new, Americanized mural will be completed.
“If City Year isn’t able to finish the job,” he says, “I’m going to tell Ray, ‘Hey, if you want to paint birds and flowers, go for it.’ If we just leave it white, it’s going to invite graffiti.” CP