By LINDA MOSS
Montclair is grappling with establishing guidelines for the private use, for community gardens and even street art, of public land and what recourse the township should have against those who don’t seek permission for their projects.
The Township Council last week spent time discussing not only possibly passing a resolution regarding community gardens, but also potentially pursuing the prosecution and punishment of an unidentified culprit who added lettering to an existing mural on a wall on Glenridge Avenue, at the Midtown Parking Lot.
At the local governing body’s conference meeting, Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville brought cellphone photos of the mural and the changes to it she had observed.
Roughly two and a half years ago, the Montclair Center Business Improvement District had a mural done on that wall, by artist Lori Panico, apparently without the necessary town approval. The BID vowed not to do any other murals without permission again, according to township officials.
Yet Baskerville said that she recently observed changes to the existing mural, in that someone had painted “Love Where You Live” in white paint across it. The mural has two large portraits of two women’s faces, and beside them, rows of brightly colored vertical lines, which is where the new lettering was added. The mural once had the words “Notice Me,” which are now gone.
Baskerville and other council members said that the person who made the additions to the mural should be identified, with the Fourth Ward representative adding that whoever did it should be treated like any other person who defaces municipal property with graffiti, that town ordinances have to be enforced and punishment potentially be meted out.
At the meeting Baskerville also discussed a resolution, recommended by the township Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee, that she wants to introduce. It sets forth rules for community gardens on municipal land and was drafted after a community demonstration garden and a farmers’ market were started earlier this year at Crane Park, which is near Lackawanna Plaza.
In July BID Executive Director Israel Cronk apologized to the council for not going through the proper protocol at the township level for the Crane Park initiatives, which were meant to supply food options for residents following Pathmark’s closing two years ago.
Crane Park and the mural are both in the Third Ward, and its councilman, Sean Spiller, this week said that the issue of the private use of public land is a complex one that the council needs to address and to educate the public about. The council needs to establish a process for the use of public land, and to determine what happens when that process isn’t followed, according to Spiller.
ART VERSUS GRAFFITI
Town officials are excited to see the community engagement with public land such as parks, where some people have turned under-utilized locations into areas that draw visitors, according to Spiller.
“As it relates specifically to a mural or artwork … when it happens on a public piece of property without any type of process or permission, we get into the debate of who thinks something is art and who think something is more graffiti, maybe, or vandalism,” Spiller said.
“This of course is in the eye of the beholder. But we can make sure there is a process. And I think that’s what we’re talking about as a council: What is the process that exists and how do we make sure everyone is aware of that process, and how can we help educate people to the proper pathways to go through.”
The end result, according to Spiller, is that “we get something that hopefully has much more community input in terms of different perspectives, opinions, and hopefully a quality end product that people are happy with and that we can all then work to maintain over the next number of years. … I think that would go for community gardens as well.”
Last week the council discussed whether the BID may have been responsible for the changes in the mural.
“If we find out that once again the BID is behind it, I would be truly disappointed,” Baskerville said.
Mayor Robert Jackson asked Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford to look into the matter.
In an interview, Cronk said that neither he or his organization had anything to do with the modifications to the mural. He added that he was contacted by the township Wednesday last week, the day after the council meeting.
“I did get a call from the township asking if I had commissioned a new mural, and I definitely did not commission any new mural,” said Cronk, who was critical of the municipality’s talk of prosecuting whoever touched up the mural. “I do see people taking pictures of it all the time. It seems like it’s beloved in the community, but I don’t know who did the touch-ups.”
The original Panico mural was completed in 2015 under then-head of the BID Luther Flurry, according to Cronk. It was supposed to be executed in temporary chalk, but as it turned out the chalk was semipermanent, so the drawing remained on the wall, Cronk said.
“So it’s not new,” he said.
A MEA CULPA
Baskerville added that she doubted that the BID would once again put up a mural without town permission.
“I don’t know if that would be the case,” Stafford said, noting that it was Cronk’s predecessor, Flurry, who had come to council to offer a mea culpa for the first mural as well as an apology that it wouldn’t happen again.
Stafford said that there are possible violations of the law involved with the mural, so the township could pursue prosecution or even file a civil action for damages against whoever added the new lettering to it. He also said he could also discuss the situation with the Township Police Department.
Both Jackson and Deputy Mayor Robin Schlager said that prosecution sounded too harsh at this point. The council discussed other options, such as having the person responsible for the updates to the mural be required to paint over the drawing with white paint.
“There are two things to consider,” Spiller said. “There’s ‘This person violated the law and we want to see them punished,’ and I think that’s a debate over here and I’m happy to have that.”
But specific to Glenridge Avenue, Spiller asked whether the culprit should have to do community service, paint over the mural or have any other kind of punishment.
“There needs to be at some point, right, an understanding of that it’s public space … if somebody went and spray painted something else on there, half of the people in this room and the public might think it’s graffiti and half might think it’s art,” Spiller said. “I do think there needs to be processes and procedure.”
Cronk took issue with the discussion of the council pursing prosecution.
“I’m sure there’s a need for process, but I think the township should really be working to partner up and educate rather than intimidate and penalize,” he said. “I think its super important to create great partnerships. You know not everybody is well-schooled in the thousands and thousands of pages of ordinances and resolutions, so I think it’s one of those things where we help each other out.”
He added that he’s doing his own investigation to find out who touched up the mural.
“And if need be we’ll go over there and — again, as a good partnership — if the towns says, ‘Hey listen, we don’t think it should be up there,’ we’ll paint over it. We’ll have a painting party,” Cronk said.
As to community gardens, Township Attorney Ira Karasick said that they pose complicated legal issues.
“There is a whole scheme for community gardens, and there are many different communities all across the country that have fairly elaborate sets of rules and regulations governing how they work,” Karasick told the council.
Baskerville’s resolution would mandate where such gardens are permitted and who manages them, and is necessary “because some of our community leaders don’t understand the process,” she said.
“I think you don’t want people just to go take over a plot of land in our parks or our open spaces, develop them and then put us in the position similar to Crane Park, although that worked out very well,” Baskerville said. “I’m excited about it. It’s wonderful.”
The Crane Park demonstration garden was created and financed by the Montclair-based Northeast Earth Coalition Inc., which was founded by José German-Gomez. His organization has a mission statement in support of community gardens in terms of the way they promote local sustainability, food security and community spirit.