On Wednesday morning, a man stopped his bike outside the former Bartlett Bus Yard and raised his cellphone to the wire fence to capture a mural of an old elevated trolley.
“That’s true art,” he said, in awe.
There is so much to inspire in the yard on Washington Street in Roxbury, soon to be a residential and retail development. The tumbledown buildings in the 8.6-acre complex are covered with graffiti and other art honoring Boston’s past and present, with bucolic vistas and arresting abstractions. A giant pair of sneakers made of twigs and branches sits on one corner, whimsical and poignant.
The visionary who made this happen is even more impressive than the art. In this immense, unused space awaiting its next chapter, neighbor and arts festival organizer Jason Turgeon saw the potential for a vibrant, youthful enclave, not just a space for artists who have precious few outlets in the city, but a site for the community to gather for concerts and festivals.
It was an easy sell to the property owners, Nuestra Comunidad and Windale Development, who welcomed the temporary oasis in the lead up to construction, to begin next year. Since the mural festival that filled the yard with color in May, the space has become a community center on weekends, recently hosting a neighborhood block party and a concert of Ethiopian music.
This is just the kind of thing — and Turgeon and his collaborators just the kind of people — City Hall should be bending over backward to encourage. Instead, making magic happen at Bartlett Yard required superhuman persistence in the face of an arcane municipal permitting system.
“The process isn’t very transparent,” Nuestra Comunidad project manager Mark Matel said, trucking in epic understatement. Working with Turgeon and another organizer to bring art to the bus yard, he needed permits from the police and City Hall, and Inspectional services. He needed further permits for the concerts and parties on the site. Making food available or using a generator required more permissions. “They will turn you away right off the bat if you don’t have the necessary documents,” he said. Organizers turned to city councilors for help.
“It was an eye-opener for me to see how hard we can make it for our artists ,” said mayoral candidate John Connolly, one of the councilors who helped Matel and the others navigate the bureaucracy. “We make talented people like Jason Turgeon jump through more hoops than you can shake a stick at.”
We’re talking about more than red tape here: We live in a city that bursts with world-class art institutions and creative types. But while there are flashes of great cultural programming, there is way less of it than a city of Boston’s size and talent deserves, especially at the neighborhood level. Boston spends a minuscule amount per capita on arts compared to similar cities. Our public art offerings are pathetic by comparison.
“Our view is that [Mayor Thomas M. Menino] has been a supporter of the arts, but not a true champion,” said Matt Wilson, coordinator of Create the Vote, a coalition of creative types who want to make sure the next mayor makes the arts a priority and sees culture as central to the success of the city, a way to make it more vital for residents, and more attractive for visitors.
Almost all the 12 mayoral hopefuls are singing their song. “These guys are serious,” Wilson says of them. Candidates have promised to dedicate more funding to the arts, to streamline the permitting process, and to create a Cabinet-level post for someone who will encourage and oversee the city’s cultural offerings.
“We need to recognize these aren’t just cultural strategies; they’re economic strategies,” says councilor and mayoral candidate Mike Ross, who can paint. “I’d like to see more Bartlett Yards, a more spontaneous city.”
Even before the first ballot is cast, the clout of the city’s cultural community is growing. The vision thing is infectious. And beautiful.