Ward 7: Battle Over Mural Exposes Fault Lines Among Community Leaders (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Ward 7: Battle Over Mural Exposes Fault Lines Among Community Leaders

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next stop on today's "State of the City" show takes us east of the Anacostia River to Ward 7. It's a predominantly African-American ward, known for its historic neighborhoods, its suburban feel and its relatively affordable real estate. As such, the ward has been drawing all sorts of new residents, new residents who want to get more involved in the community. But the desires of the new guard, shall we say, aren't necessarily melding with the desires of the old. Lauren Ober takes us to Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, where tensions have been brewing.

MS. LAUREN OBER

00:00:34
Pennsylvania Avenue, east of the Anacostia River, is a drag strip of gas stations, liquor stores, discount shops and funeral homes. Then there's Thai Orchid's Restaurant. It's easy to miss the low slung brick building that houses Vernon Bhagirat's restaurant, but some Ward 7 residents want to change that.

MR. MACEO THOMAS

00:00:53
We're looking at this wall right now, because there's a mural that's about to go on the wall in the next week or so. This mural is being completed by a group of residents who had to spend their own money to make this happen.

OBER

00:01:08
Maceo Thomas is a resident of Ward 7. He helped spearhead a project to brighten up the Pennsylvania Avenue business corridor with a little public art. Two years ago, Thomas and another Ward 7 neighbor, Veronica Davis, submitted an application to the city's MuralsDC initiative to put a mural on the west side of Thai Orchid's. The pair thought an eye catching piece of public art would be an easy sell. It was anything but. Thomas says MuralsDC and its partner, Words, Beats and Life created a vibrant design that included a baby and the D.C. flag.

OBER

00:01:42
Then it approached some residents for feedback.

THOMAS

00:01:46
Somewhere along there, it was posted along one of the listservs and then it became a huge fight.

OBER

00:01:52
He is not kidding about that. A contingent of the ward's more established and more vocal residents complained to the Department of Public Works, which oversees the city's murals project. After a heated public meeting, MuralsDC pulled out of the Thai Orchid's plan.

MS. NANCEE LYONS

00:02:08
We just felt like it was so contentious that we really were gonna need more support than just saying, I approve.

OBER

00:02:15
That's DPW's spokesperson, Nancee Lyons.

LYONS

00:02:17
We knew that it was gonna continue to be a problem once the project started and once the project was complete. You know, at the end of the day, this is art. It wasn't worth it for a project that's supposed to be about beauty and unification.

OBER

00:02:31
It was the first time since the initiative began in 2008 that MuralsDC abandoned a project because of community objections. Nancee Lyons says most neighborhoods clamor for murals.

LYONS

00:02:42
I don't think people look at it as, well, we don't want that in our neighborhood. Last year, I didn't even have to go out and look for walls. We just had people coming to us because they wanted the murals on their wall.

OBER

00:02:51
The people who objected to the mural were folks like Barbara Morgan, long time residents used to things happening in a certain way.

MS. BARBARA MORGAN

00:02:59
I think before you go out and make these decisions that you're going to do this, you should inform the people who have been here and to see if they wanted to have it put up. Because, quite frankly, what they had decided they were going to put up there, I was totally against it.

OBER

00:03:16
Morgan has lived in a modest brick rancher in the Hillcrest neighborhood since the 1960s. She's civically engaged and has been a member of just about every community organization in the ward. And she does not take kindly to what she sees as carpet baggers coming into her community and making decisions.

MORGAN

00:03:34
I resented the fact that someone who did not live in this immediate community would come in and propose something and not let us know.

OBER

00:03:45
Many of those who wanted the mural, like Maceo Thomas and Veronica Davis, are newer arrivals to the ward. Between them, Thomas and Davis have been in Ward 7 for about two decades. Both are homeowners and both are active in community building. Davis says she saw the mural as the restaurant owner's gift to the neighborhood for supporting Thai Orchid's through some tough times, including an armed robbery that happened shortly after they opened. But others didn't see it that way.

MS. VERONICA DAVIS

00:04:12
It was a sense of younger people making a decision without consulting people who have been here longer.

OBER

00:04:20
Maceo Thomas says, at the end of the day, this is not a story about a mural.

THOMAS

00:04:24
It's about a process, it's about change. I mean, this isn't like some big huge deal to me, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, it's a mural. There's murals all over the city. This isn't the very first mural that's happened in the city. But I do feel like there is a community of gatekeepers, people that you have to go and get permission, kiss their ring. What this indicates is that there's more voices in the community.

OBER

00:04:52
Since the MuralsDC funding fell through, proponents of the project got a grant from the Kennedy Center and raised the rest of the 10,000 dollars on their own. With the blessing of the restaurant owner, they're putting up the mural themselves.

THOMAS

00:05:04
The artist who was selected was given a theme, Thai Orchid. And he came up with a piece that includes a tree with some roots. He described it as the roots of the community.

OBER

00:05:16
Work is set to start on the mural in the next week. And Barbara Morgan is vowing to fight it any way she can. I'm Lauren Ober.
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