Can artwork serve as a catalyst for city development? A new short film, America’s Boulevard: A Mural on MLK, explores how a public art project in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is trying to revitalize a stretch of East 9th Street, now known as Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard.
Last year, Public Art Chattanooga commissioned artist Meg Saligman to paint a massive, 40,000-square-foot mural on the facade of the hulking AT&T Building, one of the largest such projects in the country, as a means to reactivate Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
Anchored by a formerly flourishing urban street, the neighborhood has suffered through difficult economic times. One local merchant said the constant cycle of hype and dashed hopes for redevelopment is like "being at the starting line, and the gun goes off, but none of the runners want to go." The introduction of a massive AT&T Building in 1973, which one resident called a "Berlin Wall" for the way it separated and unraveled the fabric of the neighborhood, divided a lively street known as "The Big Nine."
Saligman’s vision, reflecting members of the community in the mural, was realized with the help of area artists, who helped her paint and "immortalize" neighbors on the wall. By showcasing the foundations of the neighborhood, the project would help demonstrate what makes the area special.
Filmmaker Tyler Jones, part of the 1504 Film Studio, says he was interested in how how the community, one that’s at a crossroads, would project itself onto the building.
"There was a lot of rich music history in this area—the building is right next to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center—and there was a thriving district," says Jones. "The mural is painted like an empty room in a way, to reflect, in part, that this in an undeveloped part of downtown Chattanooga."
Jones finished the film earlier this year, and since then, locals have told him the mural, which was dedicated in January, has transformed an eyesore of a building into something that inspires pride. It’s too early to ascribe any economic impact to the project, but the filmmaker already believes it has provided a template for future community art projects.
"It’s a great case study of what happens when you invite the community to participate in making art," says Jones. "Oftentimes, you have people airdrop in to create art. This time, they made the participatory element part of their message."