Future Blooms by Keep Cincinnati Beautiful

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful is a local non-profit organization that educates and encourages individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their community environments. As part of their current Future Blooms project, the organization has been resurfacing the boards installed on vacant properties with representations of windows, curtains, doors, and window boxes.

The group has been working on this project out of a studio on Main St. in our neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine so, over the past few months, I’ve witnessed the proliferation of these painted elements on various area structures.

From the project description on the organization’s site: “Our hope here at Future Blooms is that the reintegration of a visual language referencing the occupation of these properties will lend itself to positive shifts within the community including a reduction in crime surrounding these properties and a rise in area property value.”

I hate to poo-poo anything positive happening in my own neighborhood, especially when it centers around beautifying the community with public art, but I am a bit mixed on this effort. I really appreciate that it’s grassroots, pragmatic and artistic, but it seems to me that the cartoonish, candy-colored simulacra of inhabitation draw attention to the fact that so many properties in Over-the-Rhine are abandoned. In a similar way that a proliferation of murals can signify a “bad” neighborhood, or an installation of place-making banners can suggest a struggling retail district, these painted facades serve to highlight the problem.

This is especially frustrating for me as someone who would love to purchase a building in OTR and to secure a long-term future for us and for our business right here in the neighborhood. Believe me, I would love for one of these buildings to become ours. We would love to rehab a building and live above the store, which is the kind of life for which many of these buildings were originally designed. That seems to be out of reach. So, unfortunately, this project serves to taunt me a bit about what I can’t have.

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20 thoughts on “Future Blooms by Keep Cincinnati Beautiful

  1. Your comparison between this and murals is interesting.

    With so much of a conscious effort to entice our suburbanites to visit the city, specifically OTR, this project seems clearly meant to appeal to the aesthetics of those who do not live in OTR.

    I think what we have here then is West Chester tagging the Gateway.

  2. I don’t think they highlight the problem any more than the original, non-resurfaced boarded up doors & windows. As someone who works in and lives near OTR (and consequently, walks the neighborhood at least twice a day) the effort is eye-catching and makes it seem like someone cares.
    For the record, THAT is what taunts me–the fact that I’d love to purchase and rehab for a building in the area, while the current owners don’t even care enough to properly board up the broken windows, let alone decorate them.

    Nice to finally know what Future Bloom does, though. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in Iris looking across the street wondering “what the heck is Future Bloom?”

  3. yikes, i’m fairly surprised by maya and kathy’s takes here. Esp. since, having spent time learning about the program, it has a lot in common with Visualingual’s own creative responses to OTR as an inspiration. I just wrote about Future Blooms in this week’s citybeat because i think that it excels in places where other mural proejcts falls short:

    http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-20444-the-art-of-rejuvenation.html

    “taunt” is a strange word to apply to such distilled imagery, as if it is a projection onto the project. i don’t think that this program calls any negative attention to the vacant buildings in OTR (or other neighborhoods, since Blooms also occurs in Corryville and other areas of the inner city). Rather, because the information in the paintings are non-specific (they never suggest the failure of the sites by including signage like ‘restaurant’ or ‘grocery,’ which could taunt if it was seen on a vacant, run down property), I think they invite imagination, and allow me as an inner-city resident to imagine/hope for the kinds of shops and living situations that you’ve described. Future Blooms is approaching what they do as an interim project on these buildings, but it seems like you are reading them as a sentence on the buildings.

    i also appreciate that they have developed images of doors and windows that recall the business and residential functions of these spaces. the architecture they reference (such as the italianate windows and french doors on the paintings at the corner of where Auburn joins Sycamore) and the color schemes are historically researched and respond directly to the history of Over the Rhine, not one of the ‘burbs.

    also, under their current funding, all employees of Future Blooms are residents of the empowerment zone (the areas that Future Blooms are focused on painting), they are envisioning artful expression for their own living spaces. Hardly importing aesthetics from other parts of the city or socio-economic strata.

  4. A wise Polish public artist Krzysztof Wodiczko once referred to this as a band-aid approach to public art.

    By covering something up, you are actually revealing its existence. When you put a band-aid on you are protecting the wound, but announcing to an observer that you are wounded.

    This has its place in public art, mostly as social commentary, not as a solution to an economic problem.

    And, like you mention, in many places murals are starting to signify depressed communities, actually lowering property values. This is not a reintegration of a visual language. It is, like you say, a simulacra, or a representation of the desired visual language. In this case I don’t think anything but the real thing will suffice.

    Good post.

  5. Not a terrible idea but what if we channeled the flower-painting effort into something more constructive & concrete (ha) like code enforcement?

    Also — KAB is a national organization with local chapters. If you were a kid in the 70s you saw a bunch of their PSAs during Saturday morning cartoons. They have been successful in starting environmental courts (which focus on such violations), for example.

  6. When I saw these the other day I said to my friend, “Look Mo, someone painted pretty pictures on those ugly buildings!” He told me these paintings are integral to the spectrum of aesthetic historiography and part of the normative phenomenology of the human narrative insofar as it is represented in late 20th/early 21st century urbanity so I punched him in the face.

    In any case, I’d rather more Future Bloom than Shepard Fairey’s crap.

  7. Everyone, thanks so much for your comments, and thank you, Matt, for linking to your article, especially for the reminder that the artists all live in the neighborhoods in which they’re doing this work. That’s got to be the most amazing aspect of this project.

    But, Matt, I’m confused by your statement that “they never suggest the failure of the sites by including signage like ‘restaurant’ or ‘grocery,’ which could taunt if it was seen on a vacant, run down property.” The work does use the visual cues of domestic inhabitation — if you think that implied businesses would suggest “the failure of the sites” then, following your own logic, this does as well. What’s the difference?

    As far as my comment about “taunting,” I see these installations as more visually sophisticated “if you were here, you’d be home by now” signs. Like I said, I wish I could own one of these buildings so, in that sense, the installations do taunt me.

    Call me a cynic but, if I were looking to conduct some illicit activity in OTR, Future Blooms has just pointed out the best sites. There are many buildings that may be abandoned, or may just be underloved [I thought Sweet P’s was a closed barber shop, but it just keeps odd hours]. Now you know for sure.

    For that reason, I’d be curious to see the results of next year’s “blight index.” Maybe I’m wrong and Future Blooms will encourage more stewartship of these particular spots.

  8. I respect the good intentions of KCB and the artists, but we should be honest about the implications and impacts of a project like this, they are minimal. Cities have been doing this repeatedly and they have never been shown to have the kind of economic impact that KCB claims.

    I appreciate the aesthetic interest that they create, but agree that they do attempt to create a false sense of activity. I would also point out that a mural may take six weeks to paint, these are very quick, so when the kids run up and get to talk to the artists, they likely don’t come back. In the case of many murals the artists are there for a prolonged period and get to learn more about the community.

    As for the blight index, I would love it if this would be shared so that we can see how subjective and qualitative it is. If in a year the blight index is considered to be better, will it be a result of the KCB beautiful project that invested $100,000 in a small team of artists, or any of the multiple factors that could have influence the amount of debris on the sidewalk on the day they do the survey.

    I don’t mean to tear the project down. Aesthetically, I think its beautiful. The artist are hard working and deserve whatever portion of that $100,000 they get. But we shouldn’t pretend it is going to increase property values.

    The fact that the empowerment zone is defunct is also an issue worth exploring. I would be curious to know what the administrative costs for supporting a project like this are in relation to the value added to the community. I am willing to bet the reporting and admin costs are significantly higher than the dollars invested in the artists and community.

  9. Some of you are reading way too much into this “project”. They are not “artistic”, they are not “amazing”, they are not “visually sophisticated”. Hardly an installation. They are not even very creative. Although there is one that looks like buttocks or something at the top of the windows at one place. It is what it is – painted boards over openings. Which could very easily be assumed to be a high school project that came in from suburbia.

    What they are is distracting to the real problem of empty buildings. These buildings need serious fixing not making people content with them. They are sugar coating the problem and making them look like it’s really not that bad. The urgency to renovate them is diminished.

    Like the well medicated individual, “Problem? What problem?”

    By branding all of these buildings does it mean they are all owned by the city and for sale?

  10. Verner, I called the employment of neighborhood artists “amazing,” not the work itself, and said that these pieces are “more visually sophisticated ‘if you were here, you’d be home by now’ signs.” In other words, a more visually sophisticated version of some hackneyed advertising. I realize that this particular graphic strategy has been used before in other cities, but it’s a recent intervention here in Cincinnati.

    We haven’t researched all of these buildings but, yes, at least some of them are actively for sale, and they seem to have different property owners. Maybe someone else can fill in more details about this?

  11. I think you’ve all had some valid arguments and I don’t want to squander good conversation. I work for KCB and I might help clarify some things about Future Blooms. I’d like to chime in a bit, though I definitely don’t want to seem like I’m defending the project out of personal interest.

    1. In the past, the process of boarding up buildings has been such: The city serves the property owner with orders to correct various issues (everything from actual structural issues to unpaid taxes, etc.). After a certain amount of time, or a certain amount of unanswered orders, the building is ordered to be vacated and then goes through a lengthy process to which I’m not privy. What happens now is that these vacant buildings are put on a lengthy list that is passed off to a contractor (someone with Public Services, maybe?) who paints plywood boards a standard color gray and then boards up all the first story windows and doors. The buildings sit for weeks, months, or years, until the property owner fixes the problem or sells the property to someone else who will (possibly) fix the problems.

    2. Future Blooms now intercepts this list of vacant properties and boards them up instead. The City now saves the money they were paying to board them up themselves, since FB is funded through a grant administered by the now defunct Cincinnati Empowerment Corporation. The grant pays for something like 3 salaries and all the supplies for the project. (i.e. This is not a money-maker.)

    3. Many of your photos, Maya, were of buildings that were not yet complete. Because every property is different in size and scope, these are not simple cookie-cutter installations and often take more than one day to complete. Also, critiquing the value of the project itself is valid, but discussing the aesthetic value seems a little silly. Even if you have a problem with the colors or the shapes, are you nay-sayers really willing to accept the bland gray plywood boards instead? I know that statistics are poor tools for argument, but all blight statistics prove that ANYthing is better than drab, nameless colors in reducing graffiti, litter, and crime in an area. And I can name at least a half dozen “artistic” and complex murals across the city that are hideous, yet have proved to increase community pride and civic responsibility. Basically, aesthetics is an entirely different issue.

    4. The issue of vacant buildings is one small chip in the City’s multitude of blight issues and this aspect of Future Blooms is only step one in what will (hopefully) be a much larger project. We’re looking to tackle the hundreds (thousands?) of vacant lots across the city next, this piece modeled by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s vacant lot stabilization program.

    5. You are all correct that this does not solve the root problems of blight and vacant properties. But I would argue that it does renegotiate the terms of urban blight. If a suburban home was demolished, leaving a barren .5 acre lot in a neighborhood to be overgrown and littered, I would hope that some kind neighbor would see fit to mow the lawn every once and a while and maybe pick up some trash that will inevitably gather in the overgrown weeds. I would consider this a wise decision. KCB’s work (in some of its programs) does a similar thing because, frankly, none of these neighbors have seen fit to do it themselves.

    6. No small nonprofit can tackle every issue that leads to vacant buildings/lots and blight. KCB is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless the community, its residents, its property owners, and investors are willing to pony up and take care of their neighborhood, you are right–it’s just a band-aid. We are doing everything we can to make sure that the work does not end with colorful doors and windows.

    And, speaking personally as an OTR resident who would LOVE to own a local building myself, I share Maya’s frustration in seeing so many vacant buildings surrounding me. I would love to be a part of a movement of local residents reclaiming these buildings for ourselves and for the sake of a thriving community. How can we make that happen? Now that is a great discussion, and I know we’re not the only ones having it.

  12. Look further north for still affordable buildings. I’ve been watching the corner of Mohawk Place and McMicken, and it seems like every building up there is for sale.

    BTW, Cath and I used to live in the building in the first photo (1524 Elm). OTRCH might be willing to sell it if asked.

  13. Liz, thank you so much for your comments and your insight into the process behind this project. I don’t think commenting on aesthetics is ever silly — if it were, I would have almost nothing to talk about. But, you’re right that this is just one aspect of the project, and far from the most important one.

    Mike, we are looking at the Northern stretches of OTR but, man, Mohawk seems like the hinterland to us. It’s hard to believe that this is still our neighborhood.

  14. As someone who lives in the “empowerment zone” I am all for this project. I believe it generates positive momentum and spreads good feelings. It looks like someone cares. In regards to the aesthetics, I think they are very nice. simplified historic shapes through a sophisticated modernist eye with colors picked by someone who is artistically sensitive. The designs are simple direct and lovely. I will take them over 95% of the murals out there. Sure they identify abandoned buildings, but the buildings looked like hell before. This project is smart and attractive. Not a long term solution, but certainly a caring move for a city we all love. great job Future Blooms!

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