October 23, 2002

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Wall space
The Clarion Alley Mural Project uses public art to paint a home.

By Lynn Rapoport

A YEAR AND a half ago, one of my favorite streets in San Francisco got in a nasty bar brawl – dust flying everywhere and buildings missing, like teeth. The development wrecking ball had clocked the Mission District so hard the contents of people's lives kept spilling out onto the sidewalk, and Clarion Alley, a block between Mission and Valencia Streets and behind Community Thrift, had taken three hits in the space of a few months. Down went two buildings on the corner of 17th Street and Valencia. Down went 47 Clarion, where a succession of artists had lived since the '60s. And down went the murals that had been painted on those walls by a group called the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which has spent the past 10 years turning the alley into a work of public art.

Aaron Noble and Rigo, two of CAMP's original members (the others were Michael O'Connor, Mary Gail Snyder, Sebastiana Pastor, and Aracely Soriano), were living at 47 Clarion when they started the project in 1992. Noble was still there when everyone in the house got evicted in spring 2001, the mural he and Rigo had painted got demolished without warning, and Noble decided to move to L.A. Other people in CAMP were also leaving, he told me then. Everyone in the city was leaving. It felt like all the blocks were falling out of all the buildings, light seeping through the way it does in the movies just before someone becomes a ghost.

"At the height of the dot-com thing," Noble says, "we were afraid Clarion would just be a museum of what used to be the neighborhood." In a column I wrote around that time, I wondered how you could maintain the murals in an alley where the walls kept falling down.

The last mural Chuy Campusano painted before his death in 1997 is in the alley, a black-and-white scene filled with staring, angry inhabitants of a contested city, fists raised, hands cuffed, birds or flames flying overhead. Near the Valencia Street entrance six columns are populated by Cynthia Ross's series of long-legged birds and girls. Andrew Schoultz's work stretches out in a complicated cartoon landscape involving a vending machine that offers "latte" but also "kill" and "buy" and "displace" and "mark up." Nearby, in a mural by Mats Stromberg, buildings collapse, ghosts flying out of them.

In Desert Dreams a map features the streets around the alley. Megan Wilson's Home/Casa marks the ground at each entrance like a welcome mat, "Home" painted on the Valencia side, "Casa" on the Mission side. Both images suggest that it's important to know where you are, which sounds obvious but might not be to people who have no opinion when the paint starts to disappear.

Around the time the late Campusano's Lilli Ann mural on 17th Street and Harrison got whitewashed, CAMP members entertained the thought of painting over everything in Clarion themselves, Rigo tells me – a piece-by-piece subtraction to mirror what they saw happening to the community in and around the alley. "People had no idea who was here just minutes ago," he says.

I think about the Dancers' Group eviction party in 2000. We walked around the 22nd Street building for hours and read the walls, which were crawling with poems and prayers and curses on the Planning Commission. It felt like the only way left to register protest, and it seemed fitting that the words would disappear. Nobody seemed to be listening.

But when the buildings at the Valencia end of Clarion became a vacant, dust-blown lot one day, I experienced a kind of visual panic that made it hard to remember what they'd looked like before. The lot stayed empty for months, and the money continued to drain out of town. Whether the inhabitants visited the "museum" around the corner or not, new condos with walls that might be painted on were better than a literal wasteland.

In 1994, an Elbo Room bartender named Daniel Segoria painted a devil in the alley. In 1999, in response to taggers, he added commentary: "The life of any street art project is never long and it's getting shorter every day." In 2001 I worried that the alley would be sold piecemeal or wholesale to heartless developers. That the murals would disappear because no one who cared could afford to be a caretaker, having been forced out of the city by a bubble.

In 2002 it turns out that the blocks didn't all fall out of the buildings. The CAMP members I talk with see that period as a danger point when the project could have collapsed, but instead newer members like Wilson and Schoultz have stepped up, taking on administrative and caretaking roles. Pastor, who left for a few years, has returned to work on CAMP's annual block party. Noble regularly visits from L.A. and is painting an off-site mural on 18th Street and Lexington with Schoultz. He and Rigo are also at work on the new walls of 47 Clarion. And the message board at the Valencia end of the alley – where news is painted on the wall the way some people hang up flyers – announces this year's block party, celebrating 10 years of CAMP.

Other murals continue to appear. Two lovely birds halfway down the alley are the work of Lucena Valle, who was 13 when CAMP started up; a temporary piece nearby was produced by students at the San Francisco Art Institute. And CAMP has found a sister project in Apotik Komik (Comic apothecary), a group of artists in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, who work on the walls of their own community, using cardboard and paint to make temporary murals. The two groups are developing an artists-in-residency exchange program called "Sama-sama/You're Welcome," and Apotik Komik has received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to come to San Francisco.

I wonder what would happen to cardboard murals here. About six months ago someone blew up a photograph of the dust bowl at 17th and Valencia and pasted it to the side of the plywood walkway, so that as you headed toward the empty lot, you saw a forewarning of what lay just a few feet ahead. It was hilarious and dismal, and it lasted for a few hours before getting ripped down.

Still, when the sides of apartment buildings are inhabited by 50-foot models selling leather handbags, it becomes important to take note of anywhere the urban landscape has momentarily escaped jurisdiction. Rigo talks about loving the mural project's total disrespect for private property, the way the paint jumps from one house to the next. Schoultz talks about the audience that public art draws, the way you never know who it will be. I walk around the city and find chalk-drawing notations of hit-and-runs, a letter and flowers tied to a parking sign for a stranger's dead cat, hit by a passing car.

A girl on a motorcycle died and still receives flowers in the median on Dolores Street. There are mysterious storefronts in my neighborhood where nothing in the window is for sale. For years my housemate and I discussed the identity of a street artist named Shy Girl, whose work appeared on pavement and the sides of buildings. Much later someone started creeping out at night to draw outlines of the shadows dropped by parked cars. A huge one marked the passing of an SUV with the words "Go back to Texas." Lately someone has been talking back to the Simpsons viewer who stencils "monkey knife fight" on the sidewalks; now the phrase "junky wife bite" quietly waits for company, like the second line of an exquisite corpse in rhyme.

The murals in Clarion Alley are made to outlast these outbursts, and will by years and years if we're lucky. What they have in common, maybe, is the acknowledgment of a community that is larger than the one we think we live in, of places where we can communicate ideas without paying for space. And in our city, in any place where creative territory, visibility, and audibility are constantly being battled over, the most important art might be the half-secret messages on the walls that anyone can read.

The Clarion Alley Block Party takes place Sun/27, 2-11 p.m., Clarion Alley, between 17th and 18th Streets and Mission and Valencia, S.F. For more information check out the Clarion Alley message board or call (415) 567-3777. To volunteer, contact Sarita Ahuja at s_ahuja@earthlink.net.