In June, residents near the recently-renamed 100 Steps in Jersey City Heights complained they were not consulted about an artwork that decorates an old dry-laid stone wall near the top of Mountain Road. Not only did some of the neighbors object to the work as ugly, but also that it was paid for by a state grant to finance anti-litter efforts and to discourage illegal graffiti.
Kern Weissman, president of the local Riverview Neighborhood Association (RNA), said his group was not consulted prior to the mural being installed.
“The main complaint is that they covered up a historic stone wall rather than finding a way to clean the graffiti that was present there,” he said. “The city has consulted with us on other murals prior to them going up, but in some cases, including this one, we find out with everyone else. We have voiced this concern with the city and they have promised to send us any proposed murals and the locations prior to installation going forward.”
The mural controversy is the second time the RNA has objected to being left out of a process involving public facilities. Earlier this year, the historic 100 Steps were renamed the Bill Gaughan Steps to honor the long-serving Ward D councilman — without the traditional consultation with the neighborhood association, some of whose members preferred the honor go to a resident who had worked to have the steps restored.
Although the city has had problems communicating with the RNA at times, city officials claim they have worked actively, seeking to secure locations to host murals.
While some residents said they admire murals done elsewhere in the city, they claim the Mountain Road artwork actually resembles the kind of graffiti the mural program is intended to stop.
Brooke Hansson, who directs both the anti-graffiti and anti-litter program for the city, said the mural is only 30 percent finished, and does not represent the complete project.
“This is not being created by a graffiti vandal,” Hansson said in an email to Heights residents who questioned the Mountain Road artwork, claiming the Russian-trained artist has contributed art elsewhere in the city to private property owners and other arts groups as well as the city mural program.
“To us, the slap in the face is the illegal graffiti in this location and elsewhere that we’ve been rapidly replacing with art,” she said. “Evidence demonstrates that the longer graffiti stands, the more it will attract other graffiti tags. This is what has been happening in the vicinity in question, even on the 100 Stairs themselves. Evidence also indicates that mural art is an extremely effective way to prevent the reoccurrence of graffiti, which is the main aim of our program.”
Some residents have asked for the mural to be removed. Hansson says the stone walls cannot withstand the power-washing to eliminate the graffiti.
“We have tried in the past in this area and have found that the walls crumble and deteriorate,” Hansson said.
The city started the project at this location in anticipation of the ceremony renaming the 100 Steps after Gaughan.
“We wanted to cover over the graffiti that was there, and had been there for some time, and felt the best approach would be to utilize the very same artist whose work had remained there graffiti-free and uncontested, and indeed enjoyed, by the community,” Hansson said.
But neighborhood residents disputed Hansson, saying there was very little or no graffiti at the time the new mural was done.
City says it works with residents
Hansson pointed out that the murals are part of a larger citywide anti-graffiti program funded by a state Clean Communities Grant. When announced by the Christie administration in 2012, the program’s guidelines, while mostly describing how the money can be spent for anti-litter enforcement, do allow “the painting of murals as a way to prevent graffiti.”
While numerous groups sing the praises of the mural program, critics claim that money is being directed to artists and failing to actually deal with areas most plagued by graffiti.
Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano is one of the most vocal critics, saying that funds are being directed into creating murals rather than the original purpose of keeping the city graffiti-free.
In some cases, murals have been painted on buildings slated for demolition. A few murals were actually painted on bridges surrounding billboards and other commercial advertising.
Boggiano said the grant should be focused on removing graffiti and that the program appears to be focused more on employing artists than keeping the city clean. He said the Clean Community money should be used in different ways to address the problems with graffiti.
“The murals, according to [Mayor Steven] Fulop, were supposed to stop graffiti,” he said. “The graffiti is a lot worse and according to representatives in the in the mayor’s office no arrests have been made. The program is a joke.”
How do these murals come about?
Since some of the individual murals cost as much as $4,000 to complete, some questions have been raised as to how the artists are selected. City officials said the program has drawn interest from local, national and international artists.
“We try to work with everyone who contacts us and facilitate meetings with community groups and private property owners to evaluate location, the artwork, and overall themes,” said Jennifer Morrill, spokesperson for Jersey City.
“Mural creation is an accepted use under the grant, which is awarded to cities annually.
Every year, a portion of the grant is allocated to cover paint supplies and small art stipends for artists depending on the size of the wall and the time required to complete the project. Our murals aim to speak to the community, tell the history of our city and reflect the culture of the unique and varied neighborhoods of Jersey City.”
According to city officials, the mural program is led by a team of managers, artists, and administrators in the mayor’s office, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Public Works, who work directly with neighborhood groups, educational institutions, small businesses, and private property owners to select ideal locations, recommend artists, and help to determine the theme and content of the murals commissioned.
Most the artists reach out to this team with their portfolio and mural proposals, according to city officials, or they are sometimes recommended by residents or business owners.
“Artists are selected based on their skill level and ability to execute large-scale, outdoor work. An emphasis is placed on commissioning our local artists,” Morrill said.
Artists who have participated in the Jersey City Mural Arts Program include Zed1 and Pixel Pancho from Italy, Fintan McGee from Australia, and Faith47 from South Africa, who completed her second and largest mural for the city this spring. Others were executed by DaveL from Miami and New York’s Queen Andrea. Dasic from Chile is schedule to complete a large-scale mural within the next few weeks, as is Argentinean based artist Kremenart.
In most communities and private ventures, mural projects are proposed to a panel of qualified professionals. Several sources in the city said no such panel exists and most of the decisions are made by Hansson. The City Council votes on payment for these through resolutions submitted to them by Hansson. In June, the council voted for about a dozen new murals, each of which had the price tag of $4,000.
To date, the mural program has already seen more than 40 public art murals done throughout every ward in the city, and expected another 25 to 30 to be completed by the fall.
Fulop supports program
Mayor Fulop said residents he meets are excited about the program.
“We couldn’t be prouder that Jersey City is taking its place in the global art arena and that this project is helping to elevate our local artists on an international scale,” Fulop said.
The city is currently collaborating with the city of Hoboken on a train trestle signage project. And representatives from Nashville, Tenn. and Sugar Hill, Ga. have also reached out with the interest of using the Jersey City program as a model for their cities.
Primarily launched as an anti-graffiti initiative, the program has since grown as an apparatus to engage community groups, educational institutions, partner with larger entities that own land in Jersey City, such as Conrail and the Turnpike Authority, and to help reactivate and beautify former dead-zones and vacant lots, city officials said.
The program has worked closely with many neighborhood associations including Redstone: The Neighborhood Association (RTNA), Palisades Condominium Association, Garwin Block Association, Jackson Hill Main Street, and the Riverview Plaza Condo Association, who help to identify ideal mural locations, source local artists, and direct artistic content that’s relevant to the local history, culture and aesthetic of the immediate neighborhoods where murals are placed.
“The benefit of the mural program is two-fold,” said RTNA Board Secretary Mary Golden. “First, it beautifies the city. It’s amazing to turn a corner and see a piece of artwork where once there was a blank wall. It’s like being on a treasure hunt and always winning. Second, it’s an opportunity for so many talented artists to share their work with us.”
In the coming months, the mural program will also be working with New Jersey City University, Saint Peter’s University, Beloved Charter School, and St. Anthony’s High School on collaborative mural projects that will engage faculty and their student bodies in the creation of murals on or near school-owned buildings.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.