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This St. Louis Community Created an Art Project From Its Boarded Up Windows

The South Grand business district rallies after the Darren Wilson acquittal

Just a few Mondays ago, when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCullough announced that a grand jury would not be pressing charges against the white cop who put six bullets into 18-year-old black man Michael Brown, the entire St. Louis metro area veered into chaos. The rioting was well documented by the hundreds of journalists from around the world awaiting the verdict. One of the areas hit was the South Grand business district, about 20 minutes south of Ferguson. This vibrant, diverse pocket of Vietnamese eateries, black beauty shops, a LGBT-friendly tattoo-and-porn parlor, and dozens of other restaurants and boutiques are joined in a funky family vibe. And now, in picking up the pieces, South Grand has become the site of an art project that captures both the community’s sense of loss as well as its determination to move forward.

On November 24, a small mob ran down the artery of Grand Boulevard on the night of the grand jury decision, smashing window after window at some 17 businesses. In a brief burst, they did considerable damage. Natasha Bahrami, namesake of Persian eatery Café Natasha, stood and watched the vandalism to her restaurant as it happened.

“I saw them pick the top off this trash can,” she said, gesturing at a heavy iron garbage can in front of her restaurant, “and throw it through the window. I wasn’t afraid, but it did break my heart.”

“Later, when we were boarding it up, some other people driving by slowed down to yell ‘I don’t know why you’re boarding it up it; we’re gonna come back and burn it like we burned Ferguson,’” she recalled.

Bahrami and a coalition of St. Louis City Alderwomen and community improvement groups hatched a plan almost immediately. They knew that the businesses would be girding themselves for the possibility of more trouble by boarding up their windows with plywood. A thriving destination district would very shortly end up looking like a ghost town of condemned buildings. So they put out a call to the artists of St. Louis via social media. Paint us, they said. Paint the front of our restaurants and shops with any imagery you choose.

Very quickly, the dun-colored boards were transformed into colorful prescriptions of hope and healing for a polarized city. Now, a glorious phoenix rises from the orange and red flames of a burning skyline. An interactive chalkboard created by artist Anna Bonfili, complete with a bucket of chalk, seems to issue from the mouth of a screaming baby. Passersby are invited to leave their thoughts regarding the crisis on the wall.

One of most striking paintings offers a pair of black and white arms and hands clasped in a shape evocative of the Gateway Arch. The message serves as a direct riposte to a certain New Yorker magazine cover (though the plywood painting actually came first).

Some of the art has already been earmarked for the collection of the Missouri History Museum, said one source. They’re soon-to-be historic artifacts.

“We’ve had a setback, but the art project is a demonstration of how resilient and connected to each other we all are,” said St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia. “Now, this is a jumping-off point for future work we can do together as a community, too.”

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