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A simple way to add art in Boston

If you yearn for more, and edgier, public art in Boston, Wednesday was a very good day.

That's when the city announced winners of the first Public Space Invitational — a competition for ideas to aesthetically enhance spots around the city. For those of us who have spent years ripping out our hair, lamenting the mostly-vanilla public cultural offerings we've settled for, and the opaque, byzantine process it took to get them out there, this is heaven.

Nine winning proposals — including funky new street furniture, a video installation, a vibraphone near the Fort Point Channel, and a sky mural and rainbow-trimmed stairways for City Hall's dark cave of a lobby — have been approved, just a few months after the contest was announced. They're relatively cheap and simple, and will be around for anywhere from a couple of years to more than a decade.



The best news from where I sit? That Leslie and Sam Davol and their Uni Project — a mobile library destined for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway — are among the victors. The Davols are visionaries when it comes to breathing life into neglected public spaces. In 2006, they started Films at the Gate, a kung-fu film festival held on a weedy lot across from their apartment on Hudson Street, in Chinatown.

Sitting in a beach chair on that buckled asphalt, surrounded by locals and visitors eating take-out, laughing at Donnie Yen do his thing, you wished that every neighborhood could have something like this. Such a simple, no-frills way to bring people together and make moribund places vital. The couple's Boston Street Lab also hosted a home movie festival at Independence Wharf and converted an empty Chinatown storefront into a temporary library.

The idea for the Uni Project was born there. Instead of trying to coax people into a library, why not bring the books to them? The Davols worked with architects and MIT students to create a space-agey, mobile structure that opens to reveal shelves of books, and seats on which to read them.


And . . . they took it to New York. This summer, their Unis will grace scores of parks and other public places all over that city.

I was bereft when the Davols moved away a couple of years ago. Boston needs legions more like them, not fewer. Their move was mostly personal, they say. They both grew up here, but missed Manhattan, where they'd lived before.

But it was also harder to do what they do in Boston. "It was a little lonely," Leslie says. "You need more of an ecosystem. We were teaching ourselves how to do it but also teaching everybody around us to think in the same way and loosen up a bit."

Sam, who plays cello with The Magnetic Fields, says they didn't leave Boston discouraged, but "it did feel like we were swimming upstream."

For a long time, upstream has been the only way to paddle when it comes to making public art in Boston. Witness the Bartlett Bus Yard, a vacant, former transportation hub in Roxbury. Festival organizers who wanted to turn the place into an art-filled, temporary performance space last summer required superhuman tenacity and, at times, psychic powers, to go up against a permitting system designed by Kafka on a bad day.


It happened eventually, and it was gorgeous, but no way should it ever be that hard. During last year's campaign, all of the mayoral candidates, including Marty Walsh, promised to make the city more welcoming for the ambitious artistic types who flock here to work and study. The Public Space Invitational is a good sign that Walsh wants to deliver.

"It drew our attention," Sam Davol says. "Just the competition itself is a big step."

Leslie, who was at the City Hall event where the winners were announced, says she could feel a different mood, as if people here are starting over. "Everybody sees an opportunity with a new administration," she says. "I think there's a really great buzz in the air. People expect fresh ideas."

It's a super start, but just a start. A great old town should never fear the new — it should live for it.

More coverage:

Contest aims to bring more public art to Boston

Photos: Spiffing up public places

8/14/12: Mobile library brings books, librarians, outside

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at