“Under 91 Project” Picks Up Steam

Thomas MacMillan PhotoIn their quest to permanently reclaim a grim concrete canyon that splits the neighborhood in two, Jocelyn Square neighbors are taking to the streets to gather data.

Canvassers fanned out around the Jocelyn Square neighborhood Saturday and Sunday to survey their neighbors about what sort of public art they would like to see in the Humphrey Street underpass.

The weekend effort was part of a push to install a mural that would permanently transform the barren stretch of featureless concrete into an inviting public walkway.

The endeavor is called the Under 91 Project, referring to Interstate 91, which divides East Rock and Upper State Street from Jocelyn Square and Fair Haven. Through the end of this week, project organizers will gather information about what kind of mural neighbors would like. (Take a survey here to add your voice.) Organizers will then synthesize the information into a public call for artists, to find the right muralist for the project.

Ideally, the Humphrey Street underpass will be home to a beautiful new artwork, paid for with crowdsourced donations, by this summer, said East Rock Alder Jessica Holmes, part of Under 91.

The Under 91 Project stems from the Inside Out project, which in 2012 pasted enormous black and white portraits along the walls of the Humphrey Street underpass as well as the State Street underpass near Trumbull Street. That temporary, crowdsourced art project had the same mission as Under 91: to reclaim the uninviting concrete passageways as neighborhood connectors, rather than dividers.

When the Inside Out project was hit by graffiti taggers, it prompted a heated debate about public art, inclusion and exclusion, and who can speak for a community. Some people complained about the process of creating Inside Out, claiming that it was an expression of the “dominant power” and that the graffiti tags represented a more authentic community voice. Organizers countered that they had done extensive outreach and included a wide cross-section of people in the creation of the photo exhibit.

Northeastern PhotoUnlike Inside Out, the Under 91 Project aims to create a permanent artwork. That quest begins with gathering input about what the art should be. The discussion has already begun at the group’s Facebook page, which features links to a couple of innovative underpass art projects in other cities. In Boston, light artists lit up an underpass with projections (pictured).

Bill FitzGibbons PhotoIn Birmingham, artist Bill FitzGibbons used colored lights to transform a dark underpass into a rainbow vortex (pictured).

Holmes said a couple of artists have already sent in proposals.

While the Facebook discussion continues, and an online survey has been circulating, Holmes said the weekend canvassing efforts were intended to reach people who aren’t already in social media networks. Holmes said about 20 canvassers met on Saturday and Sunday to take surveys door to door.

“We want to make sure we take the time to include votes from the community,” Holmes said.

The next challenge will be how to take all of the input and share it in a useful way with potential artists, she said. Other challenges will be raising money and figuring out how to involve neighbors in the actual installation of the mural.

If Under 91 is successful with the Humphrey Street underpass, it may move on to tackle other dark and forbidding underpasses nearby.

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posted by: HewNaven on March 5, 2014  9:16am

Permanent. That’s the key. The last one quickly dissolved. Looks like they learned their lesson and will plan to make this more lasting.

posted by: Michaela on March 5, 2014  9:19am

InsideOut was marketed as permanent, not temporary. Check the marketing video.

That was an expensive venture and I’m extremely wary of this one because of that.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on March 5, 2014  9:34am

It’s going to be difficult to make anything that can’t be tagged or defaced in some way. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I have a hard time believing any piece of art is going to be inclusive enough that nobody with a bad idea in their head and a can of spray paint won’t be willing to ruin it for everybody.

But I’d love to be proven wrong!

posted by: exnewhavener on March 5, 2014  10:05am

Great to hear they are thinking long term.. the inside out project was a complete eyesore after a month.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on March 5, 2014  12:01pm

I think LIGHT is the way to go. Before I even saw the examples from other cities, I thought “Why don’t they put in a bunch of lights or something!? What are a few big pictures really going to do?”
A bunch of pictures under an overpass is too easy to deface and make an eyesore overnight. And it doesn’t change a dark underpass from being a DARK underpass that no one wants to walk through.
Light it up! Interesting lights, projections, etc., are certainly more exciting and awe-inspiring to everyone, and maybe even they’ll make things a little safer (?), if at least less foreboding.

posted by: naturaleza on March 5, 2014  12:44pm

Maybe they can just write ‘segregated community’ in large letters?

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 5, 2014  12:50pm

With the old wheat paste and creeping black mold, the remnants of the Inside/Out project have transformed the I-95 Underpass into New Haven’s best outdoor abstract art gallery.

Putting some frames around the existing art, to make people look at it differently might be an easy, fun, first step…..

posted by: Batman12 on March 5, 2014  2:44pm

@shadesofzero I’m from Austin, TX we have a pretty large community of graffiti artists in Austin and some pretty famous pieces of graffiti up around town. We also have a heck of a lot of public art as a result of a public art budget funded by the local hotel tax. I have never seen any of the public art in Austin defaced. Obviously the various murals, sculptures, and light installations could be defaced…I think it really comes down to a sense of community that New Haven is still working to cultivate.

posted by: Nhv.Org on March 5, 2014  4:44pm

In honesty this new project is being coordinated by a much more varied group of organizers, including alderpersons from the area, architects from downtown, and most importantly the community, who are actively being consulted with, via the arts survey available in this article.

Small groups last weekend disembarked from Madden’s (formerly Humphrey’s) on East and Humphrey St. to engage with the neighbors in that area. Groups rang doorbells, as well as approaching pedestrians, with questions identical to those observed on the survey.

The committee to organize this art installation plans on incorporating ideas from the public in the final decision to create public art. Further acts of engagement from you, plural, the sardonic and sarcastic community of the New Haven Independent comments section, are invited to participate in the input towards the end goal of this project.

The experience is about consensus and democratic process, just as it is in actual visual arts installation. That’s why we’re hitting the streets with these surveys, asking nearly every resident within visibility of the underpass directly what their thoughts, opinions or objections may be - combining strengths with the team of surveyors from the “Free Artists of New Haven” collective who came out in numbers on Sunday to engage the community around Fair Haven. In spite of less-than comfortable outdoor temperatures, people often spoke outside their doors in nothing but indoor clothes (pajamas and socks) to discuss their opinion about artwork in the underpass in their neighborhood. The results of those surveys (minus any contact information) will be made publicly available by the organizers.

With no further comment to make:

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 5, 2014  7:29pm


I am sorry that you took my suggestion as sardonic.  It was serious.

I think a more organic, less orchestrated approach might be in order.  That is a lot of wall space to promote free expression— open it up as a temporary, rotating outdoor exhibition space, and let it develop as it may…..

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 5, 2014  7:54pm

Nice try, Batman12, but the real Batman is from Gotham.

posted by: Stephanie FitzGerald on March 5, 2014  8:30pm

The Friends of Edgewood Park and the Parks Department are interested in making the underpass under the Edgewood Ave. Bridge attractive and welcoming.  If you have some ideas, please get in touch with us.  Thanks! .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: 14yearsinNHandgone on March 6, 2014  8:10am

Twenty bucks says it won’t go a month without being defaced.

Stephanie Fitzgerald, why not do the same thing but with photos of the flora and fauna that can be found in the park?  Also, a large QR code that when scanned, brings visitors to a PayPal link to donate $1, $5, $10, or $20 to donate for upkeep of JUST that park?

posted by: Michaela on March 6, 2014  8:42am

It’s not correct to think that if it’s community-supported it won’t be defaced. 

Can we start with good lighting under there and under the railroad tracks?  That’s what we need out here in Fair Haven, among other things.

InsideOut was a waste of donors’ money.  How much did it total?  Like $9k?  $11k?  Perhaps the company that got beaucoup bucks printing those images would like to make a donation to a new project.

posted by: Michaela on March 6, 2014  10:20am

That may have been a little negative.

I hope this goes well.  Thanks for reaching out to neighbors.

posted by: OhTheUrbanity on March 6, 2014  1:10pm

PartOne Under91 is another bad idea, and a pointless intervention for many many reasons that fall into three categories -  design, community, and politics.  First, urban design is an expert practice, requiring deep knowledge of factors like infrastructural systems, social behavior, aesthetics, and also very specific thinking skills - configurational, spatial, and large-scale - that most people do not have. It mystifies me that Average Citizens Joe and Jane think themselves competent to solve problems with so many variables and such extensive implications.  Community design does NOT mean that the community is the designer; instead it means that designers are part of the community.  (This is analogous to the central idea of community policing - that police are part of the community.) Community is excellent at identifying problems, and this is where community input is essential and appropriate.  In this case the community has rightly identified I-91 as a barrier that separates people from resources and each other, and creates no-man’s-land(s).

posted by: OhTheUrbanity on March 6, 2014  1:11pm

PartTwo Design mistakes non-experts make that are evident in the Under91 proposal:
Mistaken Analysis:  In this case the walls Under91 are misidentified as the point of intervention.  While pedestrian passage is extremely unpleasant under the highway,  the reasons are unrelated to the walls, and instead are due to: a very long corridor; a corridor that bends; harmful noise levels; eyesores (parking lots, highway exit lane, untended verges) that flank the corridor; and most importantly, a lack of amenities adjacent to the corridor, especially on the east side.  This means few people have few reasons to traverse the corridor; those that do have no inviting scenes/sights/amenities at either end to guide their passage or draw them through.  To activate the corridor and make it a successful urban passage these are the issues that must be addressed. By design.  Facebook:The Underpass failed (in both locations) because the above conditions were not recognized or addressed.

Mistaken Solutions: 1) Decoration is not design:  Any designer worth his/her salt knows that an eyesore is not ameliorated by gussying it up, but instead by drawing attention AWAY from it.  Art on the walls is ‘lipstick on a pig’. Not a pretty (or inviting) sight.
2) The corridor does not need to be a destination - in fact it shouldn’t be due to harmful noise levels - it needs to be a safe, active passageway that brings separated neighborhoods in regular contact.

posted by: OhTheUrbanity on March 6, 2014  1:13pm

PartTwo Community + Politics As I understand, the real goal or purpose of Under91 is to mitigate the marginalized status of the Jocelyn Square community.  It is an unfortunate truth of any capitalist society beholden to property rights that throwaway places (like those adjacent to a highway) are occupied by marginalized groups. Remaking place is one way to integrate these groups into the larger community. But giving these groups the right to ‘mark’ public spaces is NO substitute for real political power, and in fact misfires:  it is a common psycho-social trope that such public calls for recognition in fact re-identify these communities as disadvantaged and out of the mainstream. (No one on Edgehill is using political capital to ‘mark’ place and proclaim identity). Projects like Under91 do no one any favors, except for the (non-marginalized, privileged) political strivers who champion the underserved to advance themselves.

Good design, however, can mitigate marginalization.  The best approach for this site and community is to develop and activate the properties adjacent to the highway, so that people from both sides have many reasons to travel the corridor, and many places to interact and get to know each other. 

Some suggestions:  1) Upgrade the park and create an inviting entrance on Humphrey visible from the corridor. 2) Create a (fenced) dog park between the park and the highway. 3) Hold the State Street Farmer’s Market in the parking lot at the northeast corner of State and Humphrey 4) Have Dunkin Donuts convert its parking lot to outdoor seating in spring/summer/fall. 5) Create an inter-community volunteer force to weed/plant/maintain the highway verges 6) Encourage street parking and find another temporary use for Humphey’s lot like a flea market. 7) Encourage small business development along Humphrey and East Streets

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 6, 2014  1:37pm

I thought it’d be interesting to paint the street scene that existed prior to the highway’s construction on the concrete retaining walls. This could be done on every highway overpass in the city.

Looking towards the corner of Humphrey and Wallace Street from Jocelyn Square around 1925:
http://www.magrissoforte.com/United Advertising/Wooster-Joselyn/10-humphrey-wallace(c1925)b.gif

A better look at the north side of Humphrey Street where the highway overpass currently is:
http://www.magrissoforte.com/United Advertising/Wooster-Joselyn/9-humphrey-wallace(c1925).gif

Today’s view from the same spot:

A view down Humphrey Street from the corner of State from around 1920:
http://www.magrissoforte.com/United Advertising/East Rock/23-humphrey-state(c1920).gif

Today’s view from the same spot:

Lighting is another important part, but the most significant thing needed in this area besides paint and lighting is regular programming that populates this space with people who either use the space under the highway or nativigate through the overpass to reach destinations on either side of the highway.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 6, 2014  2:30pm

I agree with OhTheUrbanity analysis and suggestions, though I don’t think Under91 is harmful in anyway. I don’t think that the goal of Under91 is to solve the issue but is merely a small step in a process that might help engage residents and the city at large to begin taking more meaningful steps towards solutions like those advocated by OhTheUrbanity.

Also, the links from my previous post work, you just have to copy and paste them into your web browser address rather than just click on them.

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 6, 2014  2:34pm

Jonathan Hopkins,

A street scene prior to the highway as a mural?  Really?

This sounds like something out of the current playbook, where we collage old pictures of New Haven on Utility Boxes and empty buildings.  All this does, imho, is show that New Haven used to be a more vibrant place. 

There is a place for history. 
Don’t know if this is the best place.

Think outside of the Utility Box.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 6, 2014  3:18pm


I don’t really have an issue with the utility box collages - they’re not a solution to anything, but I don’t see the harm in it.

If you read my post again, you’ll notice that I say paint and lighting can be a small part of a solution to addressing this corridor, but the real work involves the program on either side of the underpass.

Highways pose a unique problem in cities, in that they replaced something that was previously there with something else. What was once a lively street with buildings abutting the sidewalk populated with families and shops has not become a space for through-traffic elevated above the street. On a surface that is otherwise just a concrete retaining wall, why not do something cosmetic there? Not good enough? Fine. Go talk to ConnDOT about constructing usable space there, and let me know how that works out for you. Then go buy the property at the corner of Humphrey and State from Consiglio Enterprises LLC, hire an architect to provide a preliminary design for a building, then present that to the city to get approval, then go get a loan from a bank and pour your savings into constructing the building and then do the same with the Highland Street Associates parcel on the other side of the overpass, and then come back here and talk about how this group sucks.

Complaining that Under 91 isn’t enough is like complaining to someone who picks up a piece of litter about how that doesn’t do anything to solve the issue of planned obsolescence in our modern manufacturing process - yeah, you’re probably right ultimately, but its completely misguided.

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 6, 2014  3:43pm


I am in favor of creating a vibrant Space, where art and community CAN come together. 

I think it is interesting, this move to ‘validate’ and micro-manage community art through an over-reaching out reach program. 

In my experience, some of the best art just ‘shows up’, if you create the environment for that to happen…..

In fact, asking people ‘what they want’ art-wise, completely disenfranchises the creative spirit…...

What an artist can provide, and the dialog that ensues often extends well beyond the expected…....

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 6, 2014  5:54pm

Oh the Urbanity,

Nice analysis.  I second the ‘lipstick on a pig’ analogy—one need look no further than the Artspace bus stop lot to see how that make-up is wearing.

But I am still ALL FOR the idea of breaking through the state and local bureaucracy to make that underpass a free wall open to ALL artists.

As I said before, there is room for everybody.

posted by: OhTheUrbanity on March 10, 2014  11:46am

PartFour Under91, despite its aspirations and JHolmes ‘consensus’ agenda, is an inherently un-democratic idea.  Public space, to be inclusive and egalitarian must be neutral, especially in a diverse society.  Marked public spaces are authoritarian (eg, the propaganda messaging of communist Soviet Union and the fascistic monumentalism of the Axis powers) or tribal (eg gang territories of L.A., or public religious iconography).  Rather than hosting territorial claims, public space should allow a variety of personal, harmonic, and interstitial experiences.  The design approach that achieves this is ‘open narrative design’. Open narrative design creates places where a variety of users can have a variety of non-conflicting experiences, and where they can mix and share experiences. (The ideas central to ‘relational ethics’ also support democratic and integrative public works.)  Conversely, marked public space excludes. 
Art is NOT neutral, and there is nothing less universal than ‘community art’.

It is important to recognize that a successful democracy is not made by inward -looking tribes that agree to leave each other alone.  Rather, democracy requires shared values that arise from shared experiences.  Dewey’s mission to create a public education system in the United States was founded on this recognition for common ground. Public places must support this ideal too.

Great public spaces that work this way are easily found close to home:
1) the New Haven Green, which accommodates a very diverse set of users - the homeless, schoolchildren, lunching businesspeople, bus riders, suburban visitors, residents, exercisers, Yalies - having personal and shared experiences.
Hammonasset State Park, again as above - very diverse users having a great variety of harmonic experiences.
Central Park in NYC, natch.  Professionally designed by Olmsted to allow all New Yorkers the experiences and benefits of nature, AND each other.

posted by: OhTheUrbanity on March 10, 2014  11:48am

PartFive Challenged and distressed communities are too often distracted from meaningful political viability by projects like Under91 and URI’s Greenspace efforts, which mask unchecked and unchallenged political agendas (yes, Urban Forest-ing is a political agenda). In particular J.Holmes political ideas and practices are power-grabbing and authoritarian - they disallow dissent, the most basic democratic value. 

I encourage everyone who disagrees with Under91 to get involved with the project. This would be a politically meaningful act - it will challenge J.Holmes’ one-party union-controlled consensus messaging at its core.  How will she handle dissent?