In an ongoing project launched this summer, Providence’s Smith Hill Community Development Corpo-ration has transformed four foreclosed houses from scenes of urban dispossession to the unlikely canvasses of local artists.
As a community art project, HousEART is the transitional phase of a Smith Hill CDC tax credit project called Visions II, in which the organization will renovate over 20 units of foreclosed properties acquired over the past 18 months. When completed, Visions II will provide the Smith Hill neighborhood with affordable housing that the CDC hopes will ultimately help the neighborhood avoid further foreclosures. “One of the main problems right now in our country is that housing prices are simply not affordable to people of modest means…even people making the average median income cannot afford the typical single-family house,” Christian Calderone, project manager for the CDC, said. He added that the current crisis of housing prices contributed to the foreclosures in the first place. “Part of the whole mortgage foreclosure meltdown is because people couldn’t afford houses and got in way over their heads. They lost all their money and now they’re declaring bankruptcy.”
Among Providence’s 25 neighborhoods, Smith Hill has the seventh-highest percentage of foreclosed homes. The Mortgage Bankers Association cites Rhode Island as sixth among states for the number of new foreclosures in the first quarter of this year.
Nationwide, many neighborhoods with large clusters of foreclosed properties are struggling to keep them out of the hands of distant speculators that pick up swaths of homes for incredibly low costs.
Enticed by mortgage sevicers—glorified repo-men who are legally obligated to do anything in their power to make returns for investors, usually by selling foreclosed properties as fast as possible—these buyers often sit on newly acquired properties just long enough for the housing market to make a brief spike, and then re-sell them, frequently to other groups of moneyed real estate firms.
“By and large, I’m seeing a very bad track record of investors who only put minimal repairs into homes and let the neighborhood deteriorate,” Calderone said. What makes this prospect so frightenly likely is that these firms are often the only ones who are capable of offering the immediate cash payments necessary to purchase foreclosed homes. Non-profits and other local organizations must go through a lengthy application process to acquire loans or grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Moreover, according to the Providence Journal, non-profits and private entrepreneurs in Providence have been offered a mere $10.5 million in competitive grants from the NSP. “That’s a small drop in the bucket compared to the money private investors have access to,” Calderone said.
For that reason, the success of Smith Hill’s CDC at keeping these homes in the hands of locals is surprising, and provides a model for the reclamation of vacated blocks by the communities that surround them. Although the CDC is facing many of the same barriers as similar organizations, their initial purchases serve to at least rescue homes from the cycle of selling and re-selling that can dramatically forestall rehabilitation.
Nonetheless, this model is not free of complications. Calderone states that the efforts of the CDC have actually induced more competition for the Smith Hill properties on the market by increasing the speculative value of property in the neighborhood. “Once people knew we were buying houses, all kinds of other investors jumped in and started to buy homes around us.”
But foreclosures and speculation are only half of the problem; ever since their former tenants underwent foreclosure, uninhabited houses have been treated as both the contested stomping grounds of local gangs, who litter the boarded up walls with territorial tags, and as vacant lots conducive to underage drinking, according to Calderone.
“Virtually every Monday we’d come out and paint and cover up the graffiti, and it would just keep coming back,” Calderone said. As these vacant properties became more-or-less inhabited by destructive elements, the morale of the entire neighborhood was noticeably lowered, and the CDC turned to art as a solution.
Calderone contacted local artist Lydia Stein, hoping that a mural would permanently stem any further tagging. The end result – a bold visual narrative of horses breaking free from a carousel – is the first of four outdoor murals on foreclosed houses. The walls of 515 Chalkstone Avenue are decorated with a more minimalist mural by Lynn Harlow. Yellow and orange stripes line the bottom half of the abandoned home.
At Osborn Street, a third mural is still in progress. For the past four weeks, Michelle Peckham, a RISD graduate student in interior architecture, has been painting a variety of bright hues across the first-floor windows of a duplex.
The organization has also commissioned a fourth mural–yet to be started–for a Douglas Avenue house.
These four houses–all owned by the Smith Hill CDC–were specifically selected by the artists and comprise merely a small portion of the foreclosed houses the corporation owns in the neighborhood.
“The intent is not to paint every single house we own. It’s a completely transitional project, anchored on certain streets that were really bad,” Calderone explained.
The murals demonstrate how social circumstances impact the reception of artwork, and can endow them with greater impact and relevance. “You can imagine the neighbors in that area talking about how the vandalism is horrible. A mural on the house certainly brings a different kind of conversation.
Yet the murals also indicate how art can respond to the demands of social circumstances, how social circumstances themselves can be embedded in the process of creation and in specific forms of art.
“Temporary and permanent public art pieces both have use in their own way. A transient, temporary installation has value because of its transience. It makes you come in, think, and talk, but then it goes away,” Carnevale said. “Something about that is valuable.” Perhaps the murals’ transience has allowed their value to inhere purely in the collaborative process of creation itself.
Indeed, the intention of HousEART is community collaboration. Yet, as the project's completion nears, a faint disconnect permeates the block. While Peckham steps back onto the deserted street, explaining how she covered the garage door of thehome—one of the walls most marred by graffiti—in patches of blues and purple before letting neighborhood kids touch it up with their own designs, one block over the street is full of energetic children, enlivening their neighborhood by bouncing basketballs, skipping jump ropes, and crashing on bicycles.
The half-naked centaurs and other human/animal creatures that stare out on the sidewalk of Bernon Street, especially, seems to engender mixed feelings. Sitting in a minivan across from the house covered by Stein’s carousel mural, neighbors Shirley Brown and O’Key Casey shared approval as well as apprehension. Brown praised the project, saying “It sounds like a lot of fun, seeing all those kids running around covering the house in paint.” Casey nodded, but when asked his opinion on the image, said, chuckling, that it was, “bold…unique…kind of weird, to be honest. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t do that to my home.”
Nonetheless, the transience of these pieces allow the murals to acquire symbolic significance; they represent a transitional solution, functioning as a bridge between Smith Hill’s past and its soon-to-be-redeveloped future.
“This is a temporary interactive public art project because we’re going to be fixing these up soon. We’re expecting to begin the rehab in the winter at some point, but we don’t know,” Calderone said. “So instead of just leaving these houses with plywood and graffiti on it, we’re using community resources to get some vibrancy back in these houses.”
Nevertheless, Calderone admits, “HouseART is an imperfect solution to a difficult problem.” The murals cannot remake the neighborhoods as they were before this crisis, nor can they provide stability to the residents thrust from their homes.
This dilemma, at least in part, stems from the process by which non-profits acquire vacated homes. Neighborhood Stabilization funds stipulate that homes must be foreclosed before anyone seeking funds to purchase them can even apply. Compounded with the difficulty of tracking down the victims of their landlord’s foreclosures, Calderone contends that the CDC is not in a position to invite former tenants back into their homes, or others in the neighborhood, while they undergo renovation.
As stated on Smith Hill CDC’s official website, “HousEART aims to fill the void between acquisition and renovation. Artists are invited to bring these properties to life and celebrate the positive changes that are soon to take place.”
Though Stein has mixed feelings about the temporal aspect of her work, she “[feels] great about it, because it serves a really important purpose in the moment. It reinforces what I believe about art, which is that it is more about the process and the overall impact than having a precious product that can exist for eternity. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, so I’m glad to have a project like this that helps me reinforce that belief.”
Stein is currently trying to get a grant from the State Arts Council so she can complete 10 more murals in the spring, perhaps inspired from this summer’s work.
“For the murals to be destroyed eventually, it will definitely be sad, but I think it will motivate me to make more and more,” Stein said.
But, as Calderone implies, the art itself may just be subordinated to the goals of the project at large. “The pretty artwork—it’s a great idea—but it’s based on the fact that these houses are broken down in the middle of neighborhoods.”
And maybe that subordination serves an artistic purpose in and of itself; Stein said that she felt she could take certain liberties given the murals’ fleeting nature.
“It’s liberating [the artists] to not be perfectionists and to be experimental,” Calderone added.
Still, there may be life for Providence’s most recent art exhibit after the completion of Visions II.
“When we start the rehabilitation of the houses, we’re going to take the plywood off, and there will probably be a big show,” said Calderone, who runs an art gallery in Providence with his wife.
Given the social impact of these murals, curation
seems only the most secondary of honors.
KATIE LIND STEDT and JESSE STRECKER: on display through May ’11 and ’10, respectively.