From 2008 to 2010, the Cabbagtown Neighborhood Improvement Association, which refuses to allow graffiti to continue on Cabbagetown’s lengthy public wall, established a dictatorship of green paint. And now that reign is over: The paint-out color of choice is back to light gray, to match the wall itself. Ironically, the new color calls attention to the wall’s gallery-like quality, tantalizing those who prefer to continue the tradition of unofficial art.
After all, what is an urban environment without graffiti? It’s a controlled environment, not an organic one—and certainly not one shared by a wild variety of people. It projects order and authority as its cleanliness broadcasts the message: “Only approved expressions of aesthetics allowed here.” In less dense places like the traditional suburbs, this sort of control over common environments can be achieved and is acceptable. But is the enforced unity of aesthetics really appropriate or desirable inside a city? Cabbagetown is hardly a gated community.
Cabbagetown’s relatively new anti-graffiti stance is an amusing reversal. A poor neighborhood for decades, its squalor and geographical isolation created by the wall granted residents the freedom to keep their houses and yards any way they pleased. This resulted in a certain quirkiness, allowed Cabbagetown’s New Orleanian architecture to develop artistic character, and ultimately made the neighborhood desirable real estate. Alas, so it is with gentrification.
Perhaps Cabbagetown’s designation as a historic district caused a shift toward conservatism, however misconstrued: Residents are to receive committee approval before making exterior changes to their homes. Decisions are based on what existed in the past. (Wow, that’s pretty wide open …. What if I brought a sketch of a Creek Indian teepee to the committee and wanted to put that up in my yard?) Although this type of policy thankfully hinders the invasion of monstrous McMansions and overt commercialization, adherence to historic aesthetics dampens the spirit of Cabbagetown’s previously renowned eccentricity. It puts the kibosh on unprecedented or impulsive innovation, and, as the past is recreated, neighbors in power positions clearly prefer particular histories over others. This is perhaps myopic, for in reality graffiti is as historic here as shotgun houses and street-level porches.
For two years now, Cabbagetown residents who once enjoyed the urban flavor of the ever-morphing graffitic expression have had to endure the oppressive presence of cheerful green paint and gung-ho gentrifiers, smug to win an aesthetic battle over shared space. Until recently, the half-mile stretch of wall, previously famous for its art, was guarded daily by an aggressive former homeless man; he never let a mark stay for more than a day or two and physically attacked anyone he caught attempting graffiti. It is not entirely clear whether neighborhood funds were spent on his employment.
Over time, the hallmark green paint-outs migrated to abandoned buildings and even nearby dumpsters. The Pollyannas marked the neighborhood in an imperialistic manner that was not unlike the graffiti they wished to erase.
Meanwhile, down the street in the next neighborhood over, Reynoldstown encouraged graffiti and now has a most incredible wall of public art. Thankfully, that graffiti is not too tight; it is not overproduced like a lot of prescribed graffiti can be. (Other urban places—Caracas, Venezuala, for example—have taken a similar permissive approach to graffiti.)
I do like the whitish gray better than the green; it disappears more. But I also can’t wait to see what appears on the fresh walls.