It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Sunday and Church Avenue is dead. Several businesses are closed behind cold metal graffiti-covered shutters; others are open with few patrons. Either way, the lack of foot traffic is making survival difficult for restaurants and shops requiring walk-in customers.
But Church Avenue’s business improvement district hopes that a $25,000 state beautification grant might help turn around this deserted area.
The money will go to a mural program called “Uncover Church Avenue,” which is commissioning local artists to paint over five of the most frequently closed metal shutters. Project organizers hope the art will bring life to the street, represent and involve the surrounding community and increase business.
Several BID business owners voiced their support of the murals, but not even the BID itself is sure that all of the project goals will be met, especially the last and most important one—to provide economic benefit.
Parts of Church Avenue have crowded businesses, which is why “Uncover Church Avenue” is targeting a less popular four-block stretch of the street. Of the six vacancies on Church Avenue, four of them are within the target area.
In addition, a large number of the operating businesses are childcare centers, religious institutions, home repair offices, youth clubs and specialty stores with irregular hours. None of these attract as many pedestrians as the department stores further down the street.
“We really want to make Church Avenue more of a destination,” said Melissa Skolnick, the project’s director.
Murals have been used in New York City since the 1970s and have been created by artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But they have typically been political or cultural. The idea of using them for economic benefit is uncommon, according to downtown revitalization and beautification experts.
Even in the mural-covered arts district of downtown Los Angeles, BID Director Estela Lopez said there is no proof as to whether the art contributes to profit in the area, which is also home to clothing businesses, restaurants and industrial buildings.
“I see people on the street, some taking photos of the murals,” Lopez said, “We’ve done no study on whether that translates into economic benefit for the businesses. The only businesses that might benefit would be the restaurants. But we’ve not documented that anywhere and no one has mentioned it to us.”
Lopez is not the only skeptical one. The idea for the project, Skolnick said, came from a San Francisco organization called Excelsior Action Group, which started using murals to beautify storefronts in 2010. However, Skolnick said that it was too recent a project to have seen results. Uncover Church Avenue is somewhat experimental, and while she now has a lot of support from businesses, she initially faced some challenges in getting them on board.
“People in that area often associate murals with graffiti, so it has been difficult to get businesses to agree to let artists paint on storefronts,” Skolnick said.
It took her a few months to convince all five businesses to join Uncover Church Avenue. One of the first to sign on and have its shutter painted was the Bonnie Youth Club.
Although the club was supportive of the program, its management remains unsure whether it will prove effective.
“The logic behind it makes sense,” said Jim Ferguson, a Youth Club coach. “You make an area more attractive with very high quality artwork that’s public, I think it’s bound to attract people.”
Submission deadlines have passed and the judiciary board for Uncover Church Avenue is examining submissions to select the artists for the five shutter murals. In terms of the criteria judges are looking at, the program only requires artists to be from New York City and over the age of 16, but Skolnick would prefer the submissions to be as local as possible.
In addition to the local professional artists, teacher Judy Kamilar’s 10th through 12th grade classes from the High School for Service and Learning in Flatbush also submitted designs as part of a class project.
“I have always wanted my kids to be active participants in their community and using art to try to make it more beautiful is something I definitely wanted them to be involved in,” Kamilar said. “I also want to expose them to different fields of study and get them thinking about things they want to do in the future.”
The designs are now being reviewed by an advisory committee of business owners, community leaders and art experts who will select finalists. These finalists will propose mural designs to the businesses that will host the murals so that the final product will be a collaborative effort between the property owner and the artist.
“It’s not a permanent solution but nobody is presenting it like it is,” Skolnick said. “But, you know, it’s not going to take a lot of permits or take developers of properties…That takes time. That takes money. This is cheap.”