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

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The mural is located on the western side of the Thai Orchid restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
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The mural is located on the western side of the Thai Orchid restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

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 like Maceo Thomas want to change that.

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 a D.C. flag. And then it approached some residents for feedback.

“Somewhere along there it was posted on of the listservs and then it became a huge fight,” Thomas said.

He’s 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, says DPW spokesperson Nancee Lyons.

“We just felt like it was so contentious, we were really going to need more support more than just saying I approve,” she said. “We knew it was going to be a problem once the project started and once the project was complete. At the end of the day, it was art. It wasn’t worth it for a project that’s supposed to be about beauty and unification.”

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

“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,” Lyons said.

The people who objected to the mural were folks like Barbara Morgan — longtime residents used to things happening a certain way.

“I think before you go out and make these decisions, you should inform the people who have been here to see if they want it put up,” Morgan says. “Quite frankly, what they had decided they were going to put up there, I was totally against it.”

Morgan has lived in a modest brick ranch house 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 doesn’t take kindly to what she sees as carpetbaggers coming into her community and making decisions.

“I resented the fact that someone who didn’t live in this immediate community would come in and propose something and not let us know,” Morgan said.

Many of those who wanted the mural, like Thomas and 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. But others didn’t see it that way.

“It was a sense of younger people making a decision without consulting people who have been here longer,” Davis suggests.

Thomas says at the end of the day, this isn’t a story about a mural.

“It’s about process. It’s about change. This isn’t some big huge deal as far as I’m concerned. I mean, it’s a mural,” Thomas said. “But I do feel like there’s a community of gatekeepers, people who you have to go and get permission, kiss the ring. What this indicates is there’s more voices in the community.”

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 themselves. With the blessing of the restaurant owner, they’re putting up the mural themselves, which tentatively features a tree with deep roots, meant to represent the roots of the community.

Work is set to start on the mural in the next week. Barbara Morgan is vowing to fight it any way she can.

Music: "When We Become Ghosts" by Sansyou from When We Become Ghosts

The Making of a Mural from Skye Wheeler on Vimeo.

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