Midway Murals

At its core, the “Midway Murals” project is only four walls and one man in the Hamline Midway neighborhood of Saint Paul. Its goals, including economic development, community engagement and bridging divides between immigrants and nonimmigrant community members, are as ambitious as the project’s leader, neighborhood resident Jonathan Oppenheimer.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, neighborhood partners and a recently completed successful campaign on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo, Oppenheimer wants to flip the common, indifferent perception many Minnesotans have of the neighborhood on its head by transforming this half-mile stretch of Snelling Avenue with four massive murals.

With over 30,000 vehicles using it every day, Snelling is one of the most frequented roads in Minnesota. However, the Hamline-Midway neighborhood (nestled around Snelling just a five minute drive from Macalester’s campus) remains largely unseen. Unlike the areas surrounding Selby and Grand Avenues, high traffic has not brought streams of customers or investments to the Hamline Midway community. The reason is simple: driving through, many people cannot look past the graffiti-riddled and aging appearance of the street. Midway Murals hopes to serve as a reason to notice all that this community has to offer, both for people outside and within its perimeters.

“I was really excited when they reached out to me last fall about the idea,” says Councilmember Russ Stark, whose district includes the Hamline Midway neighborhood. “I think it’s a really great way to bring a little bit of life and color and interest back to a stretch of Snelling that is looking a little old and tired right now.”

Oppenheimer has commissioned four public artists to collaborate with business owners and the Hamline Midway neighborhood to design and implement four murals on the outside façades of four immigrant-owned businesses. Community listening sessions and business open houses to determine what the community wants represented in the murals are still underway. However, one thing is certain: each artist will create separate murals in July and August 2015 that is centered around the theme of “starting anew.”

Using a variety of techniques and mediums, Lori Green, Greta McLain, Eric Mattheis and Yuya Negishi’s murals will aim to reflect the continuously changing face of both the neighborhood and its surrounding city, creating an outdoor museum worthy of, if nothing else, being noticed. The diverse artists all host impressive professional accolades. They are considered by many appreciators of the Twin Cities’ public art world to be representative of what the scene is all about.

“The artists that I’m working with are awesome,” Oppenheimer says, revealing a broad grin. “And I don’t say that lightly. I really respect them, so much. We’ve all become good friends in the last six months.”

In the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, many residents recognize a fairly palpable divide between many of the immigrant-owned businesses and the largely non-immigrant residential community. Stark says, “There’s a perception that some of the immigrant-owned grocery stores and cafes are primarily there to serve the East African community and that they’re just there and relatively ignored by the neighbors.” This perception, coupled with Oppenheimer’s now close relationships with numerous immigrant business owners is one of the key motivating forces behind the project.

Oppenheimer openly addresses his trepidations of not having any official training in public art, creative spacemaking, bridging cultural divides or working with immigrant communities. Instead, he is relying on his real world experience and reaching out to those who are experts in these fields, soaking up as much as he can to achieve the most success. While he recognizes the asset of his community-insider identity, he is quick to point out that organizing a project like this, which hopes to engage an incredibly diverse community, is just not that simple.

“In working with immigrant communities, I am still an outsider,” Oppenheimer says openly. His optimism and tenacity, however, would never let him stop there. “The complexity of doing this stuff is part of why it scares me, but it’s also really exciting because it’s what I believe in and it’s what I’m trying to do.”

With initiative and ingenuity like his, it isn’t not hard to believe that what he’s trying to do will soon become a reality. The public planning process will continue over the course of five future community listening sessions and open houses to discuss the future of both the project and the wider Hamline Midway neighborhood. For Mac students who are sticking around the area for the summer, there will be a grand unveiling celebration towards the end of August. More information about the project and its long-term goals is online at MidwayMurals.com.