July 24, 2019

Proposed Mural for W-J Stirs Controversy

CANVAS FOR A MURAL?: The wall of Lupita’s Groceries, on Leigh Avenue, facing John Street in the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) section of Princeton, has been proposed as the site for a mural, under the sponsorship of the Arts Council of Princeton. But many local residents have concerns about that. A Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association meeting this Saturday will discuss the use of public art in the W-J Historic District. (Photo by Donald Gilpin)

By Donald Gilpin

A mural, proposed by the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) to cover the wall of Lupita Groceries on Leigh Avenue, has stirred up controversy among the residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) community and beyond, while raising issues surrounding the use and purpose of pu blic art.

“It’s only paint,” said Maria Evans, ACP artistic director and project director for the proposed mural, but she acknowledged that the question of the mural is complex and involves far larger questions.

A meeting at the ACP last month, described as lively and at times heated, did not come to a conclusion on the future of the proposed mural.

“It was a healthy conversation with many different views expressed,” said ACP Interim Executive Director Jim Levine. “People were honest and spoke about their feelings.” The conversation, at least in a larger context, will continue this Saturday, July 27 at 9:30 a.m. at the  First Baptist Church in Princeton in a forum sponsored by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA) titled “The Use of Public Art in the Urban Landscape — More Exclusively in the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood, Princeton’s 20th Historic District.”

The idea for a mural is not new. Levine explained how the project proposal came into existence. “For a number of years Maria [Evans] and others at the Arts Council have seen the blank wall at Lupita’s and thought it would be a great place for a mural,” he said.

The ACP received funding through its artist-in-residence program and put together a proposal for the mural, which would be painted by former Princeton resident Marlon Davila, with the assistance of the Pannell Center’s Princeton Young Achievers class. The ACP proposal for the mural, titled “Migrations,” notes that the “neighborhood has been home to many cultures: Princeton’s African American community, Italian and Irish immigrants, and now to a growing, diverse Latinx community over the past 25-30 years. This mural is a homage to cultures living in the neighborhood that
they now call home.”

The ACP, according to Levine, was advised to present their proposal to the town’s Public Art Selection Committee (PASC) and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Since W-J recently became a historic district, HPC approval of the project is necessary. It was approved by the PASC (an advisory body), but not by the HPC, which, in the face of residents’ concerns about the mural and about the lack of local residents’ involvement in the process, called for more input and discussion in the community.

“People were speaking from their hearts in this public forum,” Levine said. “They were saying what they thought about public art, about this particular work, and about the neighborhood. Everyone liked the art, but there were questions about whether it’s the right art at the right time in the right place. There were lots of questions about the historical nature of the neighborhood, its present state, and its future. We’d like to meld all those three in a way that is respectful of as many parties as possible.”

He continued, “That’s really our goal: to add to the neighborhood and the vitality of that neighborhood and not diminish anybody in any way but to enhance everyone’s experience within the neighborhood.”

Levine sees this Saturday’s meeting as an opportunity to work towards a community-based resolution to the controversy. “I thank Leighton Newlin [WJNA president] for scheduling this meeting of the WJNA, stepping out there and saying we have to talk about this issue and creating another forum for us to do that.”

Evans, who lives on Leigh Avenue, agreed. “As a resident of the neighborhood I’m hyper-aware of the issues,” she said. “Maybe the process got a bit backward, but I feel that we’re on the right track now with bringing everyone into the same room and talking about it.” 

Levine said that the ACP would not pursue the project without broad support of the community. “We want to know what the community thinks about the issue,” he said. “We don’t want to put something in that doesn’t have broad support. However you would judge — or Elizabeth Kim, HCP officer, would judge — broad support, that’s what we’re looking to see and hear.”

Newlin, in his press release and invitation to Saturday’s meeting, noted the importance and difficulty of the question “What does it mean to be a historic district?” He stated, “We will have an open, honest, and straightforward conversation about how we, the neighborhood, feel about the use and application of public art where we live and reside. While the African American diaspora is the storyboard basis by which the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood became a historic district, gentrification has shifted the racial and socio-economic balance, making the neighborhood more diverse, more eclectic, more dynamic, and more desirable.”

He emphasized that the goal of the meeting is not to come to a decision but to begin a conversation about public art and the W-J Historic District among the present residents of the neighborhood. “It’s a conversation that the neighborhood has to have,” he said. 

He continued, “This town has a habit of taking action without asking the African American community. With many issues in the past, they didn’t ask, and neither did the Arts Council ask the African American community. But the Historic Preservation Commission has said it’s looking for guidance.”

Leticia Fraga, councilwoman and liaison to the PASC, echoed the need for wide inclusion in the decision-making process. “We need perspective on this, input from everyone in the community,” she said.

Emphasizing the important history of the W-J community, she continued, “We have to be sensitive to the history of the neighborhood. It is a diverse community, has always been, and public art, in my opinion, provides an opportunity for a sense of place and belonging. Public art can represent a welcoming space for everyone.”

Fraga, who does not live in the W-J community, emphasized that “public art should be what the community wants it to be. It should be up to the community as a whole, not for others to say. I never want to impose my wishes on someone else’s community.”

Fraga urged residents to attend Saturday’s meeting and express their views. “My hope is that the public does come out. It’s important that anyone who lives in the community should take an interest and have a say. WJ is becoming more diverse. I want to celebrate diversity. Public art should celebrate that diversity. Any conflicts should be addressed early on.”

John Bailey, former Princeton resident and lead organizer of the W-J Joint Effort Safe Streets Celebration, noted the need for further discussion, but added, “The discussion is larger than a discussion of just public art. There’s a much larger question here.”

Bailey urged, “Conflict is not always bad. If people aren’t communicating, there’s going to be conflict, and how we use that conflict is important.”

Emphasizing the need for “balanced and fair” dialogue, for historical commitment as well as attention to present concerns, he stated, “we have to bring it to the neighborhood and talk to the citizens about what they think. Who decides in a historic district?”