Monday, October 26, 2015

Murals as Unexpected Urban Delights

For years, my reaction to downtown murals was indifference.  I suspect the lack of enthusiasm came from most murals falling into three types, none of which greatly appealed to me.

Some were heroic presentations of a civic past.  I respect our forebears and think they did the best they could based on what they understood, a standard to which I also aspire.  But I also believe that our forebears were fallible and prone to occasional character failings, as are most of us today.  I prefer histories that represent both the accomplishments and the feet of clay, a nuance for which murals are often incapable.  (I find the train mural, from Johnson City, Tennessee, among the least adulatory murals of the genre, but still not to my taste.)

Other murals were overly exuberant and primitive, like artwork from your second grader that you might affix to the refrigerator with magnets.  For a refrigerator, the artistic approach is fine.  As a downtown statement, not so much.

Lastly, some murals came from the graffiti school, where the primary message seemed to be “Look at how I’ve managed to deface the property of others” rather than “Look at my artistic vision.”

As a result, I was generally ambivalent when murals were proposed, something along the lines of “If you must, but don’t expect me to embrace the result.”

However, either my eye has changed or the nature of murals has evolved.  The civic hagiography trend seems to have gone on hiatus.  And what remains has become artistically colorful and vibrant, without the unfocused nature of primary school students.   Plus, Banksy has found a way to give graffiti, even if illegal, an air of legitimate social comment.

I now find pleasure in the occasional mural, especially ones that brighten an otherwise uninspired downtown vista or a walkable street.  All three examples shown here are from Petaluma and I enjoy all three.

Good public spaces and good architecture remains the best urban planning tools, but I now find that good murals can rescue bad or blandly functional architecture, bringing life back into public places.

Thus, I was pleased to learn that the O+ Festival is proposing to paint nine murals in downtown Petaluma over the weekend of November 7 and 8.  And I was doubly pleased to learn that eight of the murals will be along American Alley, a downtown asset with potential about which I’ve previously written and where the beginnings of a business boom are already underway.

The Petaluma Planning Commission will review the proposed murals on the evening of Tuesday, October 27.  My expectation is that the Commission will readily approve the plan.  However, I’ve been wrong before, so I’ll attend the hearing in case I should provide encouragement.

The proposed murals can be viewed here.   Thus far, my favorite is the Donato for the texture that it will bring to the alley, but I expect that all bring value to downtown Petaluma.

I encourage others with an interest in downtown Petaluma to attend.  The Planning Commission will convene at 7:00pm in the City Council Chambers on English Street.  If you’re there, please say hello. 

I recently wrote about the possibility of parklets coming to the North Bay.  The post elicited some comments to which I’m still responding.  In my next post, I’ll summarize the key points from the comments and my responses.  I’ll also set forth a possible next step.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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