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Cambridge to restore mural that shows fight against proposed highway

 Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff(Jessica Rinaldi)

A mural in Cambridge that for decades has survived the harshest New England weather conditions is getting a face lift this week from a group of keen-eyed and dedicated painters.

The city’s “Beat the Belt” painting, which is displayed on a wall along Memorial Drive, near the Micro Center building, will be restored so that its legacy — and the powerful message about community activism that it conveys — will live on for a few more generations.

The painting was created by artist and former Cambridge resident Bernard LaCasse in 1980. It depicts a group of residents fiercely facing down a construction worker who is riding on a bulldozer that’s rumbling toward them.

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The 75-foot-long image serves as a visual metaphor for the victory residents in the Cambridgeport neighborhood claimed when in 1970 they helped to put a stop to the “Inner Belt,” a federal highway project that threatened to destroy hundreds of buildings and force thousands of people from their homes.

The mural project is being funded by the city, and will address minor chipping and flaking along the wall. But mostly, the artists fixing up the mural will be focused on restoring its color.

“It’s a combination of a conservation project but also a renovation project,” said Rika Smith McNally, director of art conservation for the Cambridge Arts Council, which spearheaded the project.

“It’s not in bad condition. It’s actually originally done really, really well,” she said. “But the colors have faded so much, that I would call them ‘beyond pastel.’ They are a hint of what they originally were.”

According to the Cambridge Historical Society’s website, the Inner Belt was part of a larger roadway network that was first proposed in 1948.

“There were a number of people against it. But it was really the residents that got the attention,” said McNally. “They held demonstrations, and one of their quotes was, ‘We don’t want a road, we want our homes.’”

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Ten years after plans for the Inner Belt were scrapped, largely due to “community and political pressure,” LaCasse designed the mural and painted it with the assistance of artists from the area.

Karen Wolff opened a can of paint as she worked to restore Cambridge's iconic "Beat the Belt" mural.
Karen Wolff opened a can of paint as she worked to restore Cambridge's iconic "Beat the Belt" mural.((Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

LaCasse was on scene this week helping to clean up his original artwork, mixing paint and

conversing with volunteers. Painters will add a layer of anti-ultraviolet coating on top of the painting this time around, so it won’t fade again.

McNally said other Cambridge residents, who were instrumental in protesting the Inner Belt, also showed up to the mural this week to share stories about their fight more than four decades ago.

She said it’s important to preserve the mural because it shows that Cambridge has a history of activism that still lives on today.

“We consider this mural to be one of the most important ones in the public art collection,” McNally said. “And the reason is, because it’s the one mural we have about activism in Cambridge, which is really important to people who live here. It’s a real activist town.”

Regina Gaudette of Lakeville worked to restore the mural.
Regina Gaudette of Lakeville worked to restore the mural.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.