Murals in gateway cities eyed as a way to boost economic development

Murals popping up on large buildings in Springfield, Holyoke and now Chicopee are beautifying their downtowns, recognizing different cultures and teaching art and history. City officials also hope the paintings bring one more benefit: economic development.

This summer, Beyond Walls, a Lynn nonprofit that creates street art in Gateway Cities, commissioned two artists to paint murals in Chicopee’s center. It is also expanding its efforts in Holyoke by adding 12 murals to the existing nine created last year.

“It stimulates economic growth and brings beauty to the city and showcases the diversity of the city,” said Chloe Soto, special projects and communications director for Chicopee Mayor John L. Vieau.

Soto first worked with Beyond Walls when she was the program manager for Nueva Esperanza, a partner in the mural project in Holyoke. When she started working in the city across the river, Soto moved to bring murals to Chicopee, though the company has never worked in neighboring communities.

“I didn’t want Chicopee to be left behind, since Holyoke and Springfield have worked so hard to build street art,” she said.

Beyond Walls helped the city raise money and secure a $30,000 grant from the Amelia Peabody Foundation to pay for the two artists, one from Poland and a second from Portugal, to create murals on buildings at 10 Center St. and nearby at 258 Exchange St.

Soto said she sees people walking from one mural to the next, then having dinner at restaurants in Chicopee center. Or getting a snack at a coffee shop or bakery. Or stopping into a store.

In late June, the Polish muralist who goes by the name Bezt flew in to start painting the side of 10-14 Center St. Early this month, his mural showed the outline of a gray dog surrounded by green foliage.

“I don’t like to explain the idea behind my painting. I want to see the opinion of the viewer,” he said.

For 20 years, Bezt has been painting murals across the world. Generally, he said he looks at photographs of the proposed walls and the area where the mural will be located. If he likes the spot, he signs a contract and starts sketching. Depending on the weather, a mural takes less than two weeks to complete. Bezt hoped to finish this past week.

“If I like the spot, I think what will look good there, and I think about what I want to say,” he said.

Expanding reach

Beyond Walls, which has murals in Haverhill, Brockton and Lynn, got its foothold in Western Massachusetts last summer when nine murals were painted, mainly in South Holyoke and along the Main Street corridor. New ones are creeping up the hill into other spots, such as Maple Street and at Holyoke Community College.

Holyoke mural

“Father and Baby Moose,” by the artist known as Bordalo II, is at Clemente and Spring streets in Holyoke’s downtown. (Dennis Hohenberger / Special to The Republican)

“We put up epic pieces of street art, and we match the culture and demographics in the cities we serve,” said Al Wilson, founder and executive director of Beyond Walls.

In Holyoke, where about 54% of residents are Latino, according to census data, most of the commissioned artists have ties to that community. Several are from Puerto Rico, while others live in Chile, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Columbia. A few live in the United States but have roots in Central or South American countries, he said.

Given the focus on Latino culture in the Holyoke murals, it made sense to showcase Chicopee’s strong Polish and Portuguese cultures, Wilson said.

Just as Bezt was finishing up his mural, artist Alexandre Farto, who focuses on sculpture and works under the name Vhils, started his mural by chipping into the brick walls of the Exchange Street building. The Portuguese artist is scheduled to complete his work over the July 8 weekend.

“The building owners are really the unsung heroes,” Wilson said. In addition to allowing murals on their buildings, some go above and beyond with support.

Wilson visited the Portuguese American Club on Exchange Street in Chicopee last week while the artists were working, a spot he hadn’t seen since he was a student at Westfield State University. He hopes to partner with the club to hold a special event when the Vhils mural is completed.

Chicopee mural

Al Wilson is the founder and chief executive officer of Beyond Walls. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

He’d like to tie in Bezt’s mural with the Polish Museum of Discovery and Learning and with St. Stanislaus Catholic School, which has strong roots with the Polish community.

School tools

Beyond Walls has a program to work with teachers called Classroom to the Streets. It uses the murals to teach about art, history and social studies. The curriculum includes hands-on activities and stories about the artists. Though designed for elementary and middle school students, it can be tweaked to serve older students. It has a component to bring the art alive to English-as-a-second-language students.

The agency offers information about each mural, its artist and a virtual walking tour of the Holyoke murals on its website.

Funding for the murals comes largely from private grants. Businesses also support the project with donations or by offering services. For instance, United Rentals has provided mechanical lifts artists need to reach the tops of multistory buildings.

In Holyoke, several private sponsors supported the artists. The city also used money from Cannabis Impact Fees and received a $200,000 grant from the fund run by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to offset impacts of gaming. The funds are designed to spark tourism and economic development, said Aaron Vega, Holyoke’s director of planning and economic development.

The murals are part of our tourism plan,” he said. “We asked, ‘How do we capitalize on the traffic and build on the assets we have in the city?’”

While Beyond Walls is behind the large murals, other pieces were painted several years ago — some by local artists, youth groups and other organizations. They augment the new street art, Vega said.

“Beyond Walls is great with huge local artists who have done paintings on a smaller scale, as well,” he said.

Holyoke plans to create a self-guided walking tour of the murals using a QR code. Officials believe the murals can attract visitors.

Beyond Walls

David Zayas, from Puerto Rico, paints a large mural on a building in the Holyoke Puerto Rican Cultural District in 2022. Zayas, is part of the Beyond Walls street art organization. (The Republican / File)

Vega aims to partner with Springfield, which has created 40 to 50 murals over the past decade through the nonprofit City Mosaic, and now with Chicopee.

“We would like to do some mural tours, maybe with the (MGM) casino,” he said. “At night, we could do one with adults, and stop at a local bar or two.”

He believes the murals can be promoted in connection with music festivals and other events to draw more people to the city to patronize businesses.

Jazz roots

The Springfield murals got their start as a feature of the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival, which began nearly a decade ago, said Evan Plotkin, president and CEO of NAI Plotkin, a commercial real estate firm. Plotkin also founded City Mosaic.

2022 Pictures of the Year

Giancarlo Daniele and Samuel Champigny, both of Springfield, admire the Worthington Street mural in August 2022. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican, File)

“I always wanted live art happening during the festival, and I asked my friend Josh (Simpson) to do live painting while the jazz was going on,” he said.

The festival was held in Court Square that first year. Murals were painted on the long boarded-up building at 31 Elm St. The first paintings were of musicians performing during the event. They were so well received Simpson continued them around the building.

The building is now under renovation. The paintings have been removed and are being stored, but they sparked creation of other murals downtown and in other places in the city, Plotkin said.

About four years ago, a second organization, Fresh Paint Springfield, added other pieces to the city’s streets.

“We noticed people were stopping and taking pictures and videos of the murals,” he said. “It created a narrative on what could happen to a vacant building, a destitute building.”

Fighting blight

One of the recent works by Simpson is the restoration of a wall of advertising that covered a five-story building on Worthington Street more than 50 years ago.

That work was funded through a historic preservation grant. Plotkin said he paid for the first murals, but as the project expanded, he realized that was not sustainable. He has used a mix of grants, donations and personal funding to support them.

Springfield adds mural on Bridge Street

Luca Gomez, 11, of East Longmeadow, works on a new mural project on Bridge Street in downtown Springfield. The building is right next to Stearns Square. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

When asked what they add to the city, Plotkin said the question should really be: “What do the murals take away?”

“What it takes away is the blight. You have a vacant building that has no interest, no aesthetics, and it creates something that provokes curiosity and amusement,” he said.

Instead of just hurrying by a derelict building, Plotkin said he has seen people stop, admire the art, take photographs and sometimes talk about the piece with a complete stranger.

“It enhances the walkability to not be afraid to go from one block to the next to look at the murals,” Plotkin said. “It creates a friendlier environment.”

That’s the case now at the underpass near the foot of State Street that provides access under a rail line to Riverfront Park. The tunnel can feel frightening, so City Mosaic painted Dr. Seuss characters there to look more welcoming.

Plotkin said many murals honor Springfield natives and residents who have gone on to do good things. The works recognize events, such as the annual pancake breakfast. A mural being painted on Bridge Street provides an abstract tribute to inventions and businesses that got their start in Springfield.

Most of the City Mosaic murals have been painted by artists who live in the greater Springfield area, with a few from across New England. The organization tries to incorporate local people who might not be professionals. For example, a 9-year-old art prodigy painted a bunny on one of the murals this year. Plotkin said it makes him smile every time he sees it.

He endorses the idea of joining with Holyoke and Chicopee to boost local business and showcasing murals in the three cities.

Food trucks and music can enhance the experience. Plotkin said this year the Student Prince and the Fort restaurant will join with the Jazz and Roots Festival by having musicians play on July 20, 21 and 22 at the eatery as a preview to the event.

“These enhance the senses and create great joy,” Plotkin said. “I feel like it is my mission to do things that make people happy.”


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