By Timothy Fanning
Photo By Angel Gonzalez
On a building tucked between the high-rise I-275 on ramp and the neglected outside walls, overlooked convenience stores and inconspicuous street corners, a mural sits unseen despite the incessant humming of daily commuters as well as the interstate above. If it weren’t the stop light on 5th Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd, the 10-by 20 foot vibrant mural of a monster would go unnoticed by daily commuters.
Murals have appeared in downtown St. Petersburg during the past several years. Most are focused in the Central Arts District, but a few have been painted in the area around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, between 9th and 5th Avenue N.
Mural artist James Olesen, co-founder of Bloom Art Center on 910 5th Ave. N. says that murals have played a vital part in encouraging economic and community growth in the area.
“That’s what murals do,” said Oleson, “They make the area beautiful. It makes people want to fix broken windows and clean up the other buildings in the neighborhood in areas that have gotten no love.”
Two years ago the Bloom Art Center was a vacant warehouse. It reopened in May 2014, and has since become a multi-purpose workspace where artists and performers can create, collaborate and educate the residents of Pinellas County. The artists with the center visit schools and participate in youth community center events.
Banyan Cafe, Dollylocks Salon, Nova Event Space, and Growing Up are just a handful of businesses that have moved into the neighborhood since then, stimulating economic development for the community.
“I think artists have played a huge role in cleaning up our community. We helped clean up the 600 block [on central avenue] before it got too expensive to stay there,” said Oleson, who has been forced to move due to increasing property value.
“It’s just part of the process,” he said, “you build something up and then the rents change, but I feel like I can build anything anywhere for half the money.” Despite moving, Oleson feels closer to the city due to his art adorning the walls.
“When people show up to our art shows and we go into the schools,” he said, “ I feel like I’ve become a better artist, a better builder. The murals around town are painted for the people. It’s a gift.”
Starting in 2011, the murals in and around downtown St. Petersburg have become more accepted within the community as a source of civic pride, according to a Tampa Bay Times editorial. In September 2015, the city of St. Petersburg provided about $25,000 in seed money that was matched with sponsorship dollars and donations for the SHINE Mural Festival, which added to the vibrant collection of murals.
Zulu Painter, another artist who has painted murals in St. Petersburg and who works with Bloom, the biggest challenge is finding willing business owners who will sponsor the murals. He says that commissions are difficult to find, especially in areas like Midtown and South side since people don’t have a lot of money.
As an artist, Zulu often invests a small fortune in tools and supplies. For his murals, he sometimes is able to just cover the cost of materials. But he is confident that over time, his effort will pay off. “Art is the best thing,” said Zulu, “if we could get more sponsors and organizations to commission murals in neglected areas, we could really be a city that’s all about the arts. We have plenty of artists at Bloom waiting and eager to be given a chance to show their work.”
The city of St. Petersburg is excited about murals, said Elizabeth Brincklow, former manager of the city’s office of cultural affairs. As long as the property owner and the artist have an agreement, murals are free-for-all.
“Murals really create a placemaking similar to public art,” she said. “It’s a wonderful turning point for us and the city.”
Residents like Arthur Albert, who lives blocks away from Bloom, on Burlington avenue, believe that artists like Oleson and Zulu underscore other aspects that contribute to community growth. “It takes more than putty and paint,” he says, “…It takes a long-term commitment from the city, faith in one another, and solid planning. Most of all, it takes time.”
Albert has owned his home for nearly 15 years. For him, the city’s efforts to improve overlook working class people and small business owners. “It’s come a long way. But if we focus on what’s pretty, we don’t fix the things that really help the community like job placement and after school programs. Improvement is supposed to be about providing enough of a little seed so folks can grow.”
Albert hasn’t seen an uptick in his property value yet. But he’s confident it will. “For me, it’s kind of scary. I just feel bad for the folks who’ve had to move to make room for all the new stuff.”