July 5, 2016; St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis nonprofit Better Family Life began its Beyond the Walls project in 2011. Beyond the Walls takes abandoned buildings and paints on them murals of local community leaders, entertainers, and entrepreneurs. James Clark, vice president of the nonprofit organization, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Through the Beyond the Walls mural program, we have looked at different individuals who have contributed to the advancement of the community.” 

The colorful portraits were created by local artist Christopher Green. The paintings have featured local activists like Jamala Rogers, a featured columnist for St. Louis’ largest black weekly, the award-winning St. Louis American newspaper, and leader of the group Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis; and former state senator J.B. “Jet” Banks of the St. Louis district. Beyond honoring these esteemed individuals in the St. Louis community, Clark says the murals are also meant to beautify neighborhoods and “raise the esteem and deliver hope to individuals and families whose lives have been marginalized.”

Public art installations like these are not new to cities with urban decay. Last year in Los Angeles, gallery owner Jason Ostro of the Gabba Gallery started a public art initiative called The Alley Project, which places color murals in alleys that you would normally expect to be filled with trash. “When we moved into the neighborhood three years ago, there was so much garbage and graffiti around here,” says Ostro. “The whole idea was turn blight into bright.” As of December 2015, the project has commissioned over 90 murals by 80 different local and international artists.

The city of Dayton, Ohio, gave some consideration to zoning laws that would allow abandoned buildings prone to graffiti to be painted with murals. Under deliberation is the idea of allowing the painting of murals on the fronts of buildings without a zoning variance so long as they do not impact distinctive architectural and historic features. Tony Kroeger, a city planner, told the Dayton Daily News, “These things seem to have a place in urban areas, where there are large, blank walls. They don’t detract from the urban environment—in fact, they add something to it.”

So can these public art installations change areas of blight into beautiful outdoor art galleries? Clark of Better Family Life told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that their mural project is “lighting a spark” that could eventually create more development and attract potential investors to the community that could “increase property value, lower insurance rates and start a renaissance.” While these art projects may not solve the bigger issue of blighted buildings in urban areas, they definitely are a novel way to beautify these neighborhoods.

NPQ has written before about communities which work with local blight to create art – in Flint, for instance where a number of such projects have emerged as expressions of community strength and resilience.

—Alexis Buchanan