Three weeks after vandals defaced their public art project on the walls of a State Street underpass, neighbors have begun reclaiming a second vacant concrete canyon—where so far they’re battling only rain and wheat-paste mold, not spraypainted tags.
In the slanting evening sun Thursday, a dozen volunteers appeared at a Humphrey Street I-91 highway underpass and set about plastering the walls with 6-foot photographic portraits of neighborhood locals.
It was the latest work day organized as part of New Haven’s Inside Out project, a public art venture designed to transform two pieces of anonymous highway infrastructure, to convert them from neighborhood dividers into community connectors. The project targets underpasses on Humphrey Street near State Street and on State Street near Bradley Street, two spots where mid-20th century highway construction severed neighborhoods.
The state Department of Transportation-approved venture is funded by nearly $10,000 in donations from about 240 people. Over the past months eight volunteer photographers set up at the underpasses on four occasions and took pictures of neighbors and passersby. Three hundred and thirteen of those images have been printed on huge sheets of paper that volunteers are now in the process of pasting up on the concrete underpass walls.
The project is inspired by the artist JR, who has completed similar pieces around the world. The effort in New Haven has been spearheaded by tech entrepreneurs Ben Berkowitz and Miles Lasater.
Inside Out volunteers started mounting photos in early June at the Bradley Street underpass, putting up dozens of pictures of smiling neighbors. Only a few days later, two taggers came along and scrawled their names over the photos and blacked out the eyes of some of the portraits.
Supporters immediately set about repairing the damage, first by hand-painting over the tags, then by pasting photo patches over them. Meanwhile a passionate debate broke out online and raged for days about the process and function of the Inside Out project, the definition of community art, and neighborhood inclusion and exclusion.
Three weeks later, with Bradley Street’s underpass photos repaired, Inside Outers are already well on their way to giving the Humphrey Street underpass the same treatment. There’s been no sign of further vandalism apart from some cases of people peeling off parts of the posters. The biggest threat to the project has been the rain, which has caused some of the posters to come unstuck.
Berkowitz said he never intended the project to be permanent. He said people involved in the project are of two minds about permanence—some people are trying to find ways to make it last; others are happy to watch what happens as time and weather have their way with it. Inside-Outer Chris Randall has treated some of the Humphrey Street posters with urethane, giving them a yellow tinge and maybe protecting them from the elements.
When volunteers convened Thursday at 6:30 p.m. for the latest round of wheat-pasting, Berkowitz (at center in photo) was among the first to arrive. He laid out orange cones to slow traffic, lined up stiff brooms for wheat-paste application, and with Alex Burnet (left) and Ted Palenski (right) began chalking off a line on the north wall to mark the top edge of the posters.
Lasater marked where specific images should be hung.
Berkowitz and Palenski took a look at the wall sequence.
After passing out yellow safety vests and donning one himself, Berkowitz, uncapped a few buckets of newly made wheat paste. Berkowitz had brewed the batch himself, using the ancient recipe of flour, water, and sugar. It’s best used fresh, he said. “After a week it reeks.”
Berkowitz assigned volunteers Lisa Siedlarz and Erin Gustafson the task of re-adhering some of the posters on the south wall that had come partially unstuck in recent rain. He started them off with a demonstration (pictured).
“I think it’s fabulous,” Siedlarz said of Inside Out. She said it has brought together people who would otherwise never have met.
“Every time I walk under here, I talk to a new neighbor,” said Berkowitz, who lives less than a block away. The other day he struck up a conversation with someone who told him he always used to keep his head down when he walked through the underpass. Now his head is up, looking at the posters and talking to neighbors. “We would never have talked if this weren’t up,” Berkowitz recalled the guy telling him.
The project also played a role in Berkowitz’s recent engagement to Kati Fredlund. One recent morning he wrote “Kati, will you marry me?” on the wall between two photos. “I used chalk—an approved and legal medium,” he joked.
Then he took Fredlund for a walk by the wall, got down on one knee, and pulled out a ring. Fredlund said yes, and wrote it on the wall, too.
Volunteers put up 15 posters on the north side of Humphrey on Thursday. Under Berkowitz’s direction, Palenski made sure to push one poster into the large seams in the concrete. Otherwise, it’s been too tempting for passersby to punch holes in the pictures, Berkowitz said.
Back on the south side of the street, Lasater’s tall dad, Ike, was enlisted to re-stick a second-layer poster that had come partially unstuck. When it’s done, the plan is that the whole underpass will have double-decker photos.
Jessica Burke, who was helping Ike, said she came out to volunteer after coming across the project on Facebook. “How could you not enjoy it? It’s a beautiful project,” she said. “When people drive through here, you see them slow down and smile.”
Near Ike’s repair job, some discoloration was visible on some of the portraits. Mold, Miles said. You can mix copper into the wheat paste, which acts as antibacterial, but then it’s not safe to have around kids, Berkowitz said. The project is meant to be available to everyone, of all ages, he said.
Berkowitz said the group keeps neglecting to put up a statement explaining the project to passersby. “The thing we keep not doing is letting people know what it is. I may just grab chalk and write it on the wall now.”
“Photos of our neighbors, taken by our neighbors, pasted by our neighbors, paid for by our neighbors,” he wrote.
Not long after that, two neighbors happened by. “This is a fantastic idea,” said Marc Brunet, walking by with his wife Louise. “It’s unbelievable. ... I’ve been here for 15 years. This is the best idea to make it more human, more personalized.”
Fair Havener Lee Cruz, who stopped by Thursday with his wife and small son, said he’s hoping to start a similar project in Fair Haven, working with neighbors in the Q Terrace housing project. He said he might “learn from these guys” and put the posters six feet off the ground. “If you want to vandalize it, you’re going to need to get a ladder.”
By 8:15 p.m., the wheat paste was dwindling. Palenski and four other volunteers hung the last of the day’s 15 posters, a two-thumbs-up picture of Palenski himself.
A man in a Derek Jeter Yankees jersey walked by, another person Berkowitz now recognizes since he had his picture taken for the project. Berkowitz assured him his portrait would be on the wall soon: “You’re going up.”