The South Side’s street art Color Park — located along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail near The Highline — received what some would call a needed facelift last week. Others on social media offered a decidedly different opinion.
Volunteers from Friends of the Riverfront — the nonprofit tasked with protecting and maintaining riverfront trails and access — primed the concrete blocks in the space with a fresh coat of white paint last Tuesday morning, May 23, creating a blank canvas for what organizers call a park “refresh.”
Volunteers and local artists spent Thursday evening before the holiday weekend adding new colors and fresh works of art to the space.
“I think it’s an amazing concept,” says Kelsey Ripper, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront. “Artists need a space to experiment and hone their craft and do it safely. I’m excited to keep the tradition going.”
Started in 2017 with local artist and former Steelers running back Baron Batch, the park was originally designed to be an ever-changing street art gallery with annual updates. But the lack of events, in part due to Covid, left the park susceptible to less savory and sometimes vulgar graffiti that led to some backlash from area residents.
“I think it’s a good idea in theory, but it needs to be curated,” says Allentown resident Nancy Lomasney. “It’s good to activate the space for sure, but I think it’s been neglected. I think it is a naive hope that it’s going to be self-regulated.”
Thursday’s refresh is a step in the right direction, says Ripper, acknowledging that some of the graffiti had gotten out of hand and exceeded the park’s intended boundaries. Going forward, Friends of a Riverfront plans to organize annual refreshes.
“Next year we’ll do an even bigger push to let people know this is happening,” Ripper says.
In the meantime, street artists are encouraged to add their work or cover older pieces whenever they want.
Batch was on hand Thursday assisting amateur artists, adding some of his own flair on the murals and just taking in the scene, laughing and chatting with others who came by to paint.
“It’s about moving to the next phase of what this project actually is,” Batch says. “It’s a place of expression.”
He hopes the idea can be expanded or used regularly for events.
Beltzhoover native and artist Dejouir Brown says the park has been an important space for him since it began. A father, and line cook by trade, Brown works on his art in his spare time.
“It’s a place where people can come and experiment. A lot of people don’t have studios or places in their house where they can express their color and just try stuff,” Brown says.
For him, it’s also a place of stress relief.
Talking with Batch and another artist, Brown adds, “Especially as Black men, we’re always looked at to be angry or upset. This art is how we can channel our emotions and express how we feel or let out our emotions. I found myself escaping to the park. It’s a heavy escape for me. When I am in my feelings or when I am feeling stressed out about things I don’t have control over, I jump into art.”
As to the explicit, sloppy or expletive-laden graffiti, he says it has no place in Color Park and is generally frowned upon by the street art community.
“I don’t like it. I want people to do their research. Don’t do dumb stuff,” he says. “Don’t come down here doing profanity. That’s a waste of your time.”
For full-time artist Korey Edmonson of Baldwin, Thursday was an opportunity to try a new medium and work with spray paint.
“It’s my first time doing something this big,” Edmonson says of a colorful image he painted on one of the blocks. Speaking of the refresh he adds, “Hopefully it encourages some positive art.”
Both Edmonson and Brown express interest in seeing an expansion of Pittsburgh’s street art scene. Brown points to places like the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami — an old industrial area that has embraced mural parks and transformed into a revitalized arts district — as a good example of larger scale street art projects.
The property in and around Color Park is owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) and includes a large unused paved space. Batch and Ripper both see the potential for expanded use of the space for festivals, concerts and other projects.
While much of the response to Thursday’s refresh was positive, there was some backlash on social media, especially concerning some of the artwork that was created by artists who are now deceased, that was covered up. Because of the scarcity of information, others mistakenly assumed that Color Park was abandoned and the space had just been painted white.
Happy with the refresh as a whole, Brown agrees with some of the criticism.
“I wish that the people that orchestrated this situation could have reached out to somebody to get more information on the culture,” he says. “Other than that, I love it.”
While all of the blocks at the center of the park were primed white, some of the existing art on the ground was preserved and painted around.
Defending the decision to paint over much of the park, Ripper says that was always the original intent of the space. “That’s the nature of graffiti. It’s always going to be changing.”
In an email, she writes that members of Friends of the Riverfront discussed saving some of the pieces, but ultimately decided, “We didn’t want to be the arbiters of what is good art and what is not. We looked at every piece of art before the refresh and didn’t see any indication that there were memorial pieces in the park. The original intent of Color Park, and what keeps it interesting, is that it is ever-changing.”
The park is open to artists to come and add their works to the space at any time. Covering up or simply adding around older works is a generally accepted practice in the street art community.