A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do a write up for my favorite St. Louis-based arts and culture magazine, ALIVE Magazine, on a new public art installation in our city’s Carr Square neighborhood. ALIVE is dedicated to featuring the work of extraordinary creatives in the Heartland states, and the project had a powerhouse local artist behind it in Cbabi Bayoc (pronounced “Kuh-Bobby”). But during my reporting, I became even more interested in the other artists Bayoc collaborated with, and with their project’s quietly ambitious goal: radically remaking a troubled public space through nothing more than paint.
The Carr Square neighborhood is probably best known nationally as the former home of Pruitt-Igoe, the massive government-funded housing complex which became a cautionary tale of the perils of top-down development and residential segregation. Most urbanists are likely familiar with the famous footage of the complex’s towers crumpling into the earth—beset by crime and decay, they were razed just 18 years after the first residents moved in. But those outside of St. Louis may not realize that the entire neighborhood surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe site was more or less demolished too, whether in preparation for the complex’s construction or in the years since its demolition.
And their impact is still being felt today. As we’ve discussed on Strong Towns before, the city brokered a deal with a handful of large developers to buy up abandoned properties throughout North City St. Louis and then, effectively, allowed those developers to let their property rot until most of it was all but demolished by decay. Today, Carr Square is highly segregated (over 98% of residents are African-American), and still only gradually rebuilding. In 2016, it was one of two St. Louis neighborhoods that split a $29-million Choice Neighborhoods Grant, awarded by HUD to regions that have been identified as possessing particular potential, but also needing dire help.
At the center of Carr Square is Murphy Park, which had become something of an emblem for the neighborhood’s struggles. Local residents reported that they were more likely to see criminal activity on the playground than kids climbing on the monkeybars; scattered trash and old facilities served as a painful reminder of how little care was paid to the space, whether by city services or by neighbors.
But while some cities would be tempted to uproot the problem park entirely—or at least try another top-down strategy like an anti-crime task force—the community had another idea. The City of St. Louis joined forces with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, University Missouri- St. Louis, the Center for Creative Arts (COCA), and Urban Strategies, Inc (USI). to make a small bet in Murphy Park: a simple mural project that would become so much more.
Urban Strategies took a strategic lead in the project. “USI has been working in the near north side to plan and implement community revitalization and crime reduction strategies,” said USI marketing rep Cindy Wallach via email. “[We] help create opportunities for all children and families to be stable and thriving.”
But what does a mural have to do with creating family opportunity and solving neighborhood crime? According to the project leads, Murphy Park had, first and foremost, an image problem: the park didn’t feel like a place for children, so children and their families rarely came there. So the partnership contracted with a local artist, Cbabi Bayoc, who’s well-known locally for his vibrant, joyful paintings that depict black children and families.
But Bayoc wasn’t the only artist on board the Murphy Park mural project. Because rather than contracting him to paint something on his own, the project leaders empowered the artist to create twelve weeks of community painting events where residents could add their vision to their park.
At first, only a handful of residents showed up on chilly April mornings. Artists of all ages crowded into a nearby church to paint on panels that would later be installed near the playground, and got a little basic painting and drawing instruction from Bayoc. But over time, more people showed up—not just to paint, but to serve the painters themselves. The St. Louis Metro Police department began coming weekly with free lunches for anyone who was hungry. Local nonprofit Village of Moms started tagging along to give the youngest artists free books to take home once the day’s fun was over. Soon, the weather warmed, and the painting sessions moved outside where they could double as park clean-up sessions, as well as tripling as weekly ad-hoc community festivals shaped around residents’ needs, with more neighbors getting on board almost every week.
But I think what’s most remarkable about the Murphy Park mural project story is how much courage it took to try it. Carr Square is a neighborhood that was all but literally leveled; I’m sure it feels, sometimes, like the only way to build it back up would be through some equally huge and cataclysmic intervention, maybe a multi-million dollar building to replace the one you tore down. But look what happens when you make a small, strategic bet on just one park instead. Look what happens when you start with a humble project, and listen to the people who show up to get it done. Look what happens when you let that small project grow organically into something amazing that addresses many of your neighborhood’s needs. Look what happens when you try a different way.