The brick at the Bartlett Yard bus depot has spray paint and history caked into its creases. It’s the remnant of a brief moment when the walls of the maintenance facility became an open-air gallery in Roxbury. During the summer of 2013, it was a haven for art shows, impromptu concerts and photo shoots. Murals still cover almost every inch of this space. But it was never meant to last.
In much the same way that Long Island City recently bid farewell to 5 Pointz, an old New York factory turned graffiti city, artists in Boston are saying goodbye to the sprawling Bartlett Yard.
Demolition day arrived a week ago.
“It does hurt to see it go,” said Ricardo Gomez, 40, a longtime street artist in Roxbury. “The essence was to be able to paint publicly and have someone go, ‘That was amazing.’ ”
The 8½-acre property at the corner of Washington and Bartlett Streets is slated to become Bartlett Place, a mixed-use development with residential, retail, and a charter school with a focus on the arts. After an almost two-year delay, demolition is finally moving forward. Mark Matel, project manager with Nuestra Comunidad, said one wall in the new development will be set aside for artists to paint.
“We want to use this wall as a tribute to Bartlett Yard,” Matel said. “A part of the identity and cultural branding of this community as a ‘creative village.’ ”
For a while, Bartlett Yard was one of a handful of spots in Boston where one could spray paint walls without getting arrested. Nuestra Comunidad and its partner Windale Development gave their blessing, allowing artists to transform the buildings near Dudley Square.
Jeremy Alliger and his producing partner, Jason Turgeon, funded the Bartlett Yard arts and cultural effort under the non-profit, Alliger Arts. He remembers that creating a temporary space for street art was a battle.Some residents were already against Bartlett Place, viewing it as gentrification. They were also against the idea of murals on the blighted bus depot. At first.
“It’s been difficult for people to separate vandalism from art when it comes to graffiti,” Alliger said. “One of things I’m proud of is this project changed the discussion and attitude about public art in Boston.”
In time, a local church brought their congregation to tour the Bartlett space, he said. Residents who’d worked at the depot before it closed in 2005 came to watch artists paint. Two Bartlett artists went on to do commissioned art works at City Hall.
It drew a mix of artists. Gomez created a second-floor image of the Orange Line, which once crossed a rail line through the lot. There are tributes to fallen firefighters, family members, fellow artists and friends who died of drug overdoses. People came from Europe, Canada and across the United States.
“We had access to a lift and lots of free paint . . . so I made it as big as I could,” Cyrille Conan, 42, of Roxbury said of his mural. “. . . using this black and white patterning, it’s like this camo from the British [during] WWI. They used to paint their navy ships this way . . . to me it’s a memory of an awesome summer and a great time with great people here in Roxbury.”
He listened to kids practice free-style rapping in a nearby alcove. Art would simply show up, such as a pair of giant sneakers made from a pile of sticks. The laces were fire hoses and the soles cut from old tires. There was a garden and places to sit. Parents let kids wander and draw on the walls. Liz LaManche, an artist from Somerville, used imagery that riffed on old Ethiopian manuscripts as well as faces and birds. Her mural was across Washington Street from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church.
“I wanted to paint a sincere love letter to the people in the neighborhood,” LaManche said. “They’re the ones that were living with the view of these walls. I wanted to give them something colorful, beautiful, and engaging that would brighten up the street.”
Cedric Douglas walked through the yard a few weeks before demolition. He wandered the property like it was his living room admiring new pieces that arrived after the art project was shuttered at the end of 2013.
Douglas’ nights were spent painting that summer. He pulled down old piping while working with Mas Paz, an artist who lives in Washington D.C., and well-known local artist Percy Fortini-Wright. Green sludge leaked down the wall. Their cellphones lit the way in the dark. There was barely a pinpoint of light, yet between the two of them they created a large abstract mural that remains there to this day.
Strewn throughout that warehouse are old spray cans and Trivial Pursuit cards.
Bartlett was a place where their art would burn, Douglas said. In graffiti subculture, that means their art was so powerful, it caught fire. Maybe it added to the feel of the place, the fact that one day, everything would disappear.
“Hopefully, a new conversation opens up and other spaces like this happen,” Douglas said. “I think a lot of people saw this space . . . people care about it, know about it, and they respect it and they respect graffiti a little bit more and street art. So it’s opened up the door for it to be more acceptable in Boston. And I think that’s huge.”
A commissioned piece on a garage door may be the only survivor of the old bus depot. Douglas created it with Fortini-Wright. It’s a black and white portrait of civil rights activist Rosa Parks. She’s gazing across the property, waiting patiently for the bulldozers.