And the Wall Came Down

The Death of "Celebration of Life"

"Why is it they can't build around the wall?"

That seemingly straightforward query hung in the air in the small basement meeting room of the Sumner Library. The date was December 29, and some 60 people had squeezed in for a wake in honor of the "Celebration of Life" mural, designed by nationally renowned artist John Biggers and executed by a slew of local artists in 1996. The mural, along with the I-94 sound barrier it adorned on the corner of Lyndale Avenue North and Olson Memorial Highway, was slated to be demolished to make room for Minneapolis's massive housing redevelopment, Heritage Park.

On December 31, as onlookers protested and wept, cranes dismantled the wall.

Last February Lois Eberhart, the city's near-north-side manager for Open Space and Infrastructure, told City Pages that the mural would not be destroyed: "It's always been an icon in the community, and we are going to keep it." (See "Home Is Where the Art Is," February 28.) But in June a city-commissioned report by an outdoor-art conservator indicated that relocation would involve some damage to the mural and an indeterminate price tag. The city scheduled a September 22 meeting to discuss the options. But according to Chuck Lutz, deputy director of special initiatives for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, only 22 people attended, despite thousands of mailings notifying community members. Lutz says the meeting ended without clear consensus, with some attendees advocating that the mural be moved and others pushing for demolition and a replacement artwork. In October an update to the conservator's report was even more pessimistic about cost and damage. That, says Lutz, tilted the balance in favor of demolition.

A new piece of art will be commissioned to honor the mural. A site has yet to be designated, but city officials say it will be given a prominent place in Heritage Park.

But why couldn't the city have simply left the mural where it was? "The mural wouldn't fit with the number of housing units we wanted to do," says Lutz, adding that the wall had to be torn down by New Year's Eve so the next phase of development could proceed. Because the new development calls for low-density housing rather than high-rises, Lutz continues, street noise can be deflected by landscaping instead of a concrete wall--a change that also allows for clearer views of the downtown skyline.

None of which mollifies the mural's mourners, who are particularly disturbed by the city's rush to deploy the wrecking ball. "When you go by there now, it makes me feel sick," says Stanford Barney, a north-side resident who had worked to try to save the mural. "They built it to be proud in the African-American community, but it wasn't only for us--it was for everybody. Why couldn't they work around it for a while? They could have waited. The city just didn't care. That's what hurt."

 
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