We could all do with a little more color in our lives.
Over the past few months, a sidewalk mural in Takoma Park has become the subject of a fierce local debate over public space. The mural, painted by kids during the pandemic, was seen as playful art by some and graffiti by others. After a lengthy neighborhood back and forth, the city power-washed the art away.
The controversy over the sidewalk mural is ultimately about much more than the paint itself. How we approach violations of municipal rules and the way we discuss those departures matter for the kind of community we build together. In our view, we can do much better than the city’s overly rigid approach and the far-too-heated tenor of the neighborhood discourse surrounding the artwork.
The sidewalk mural was a product of the COVID-19 quarantine. After the city canceled a professionally painted art piece in March 2020, a mom in Takoma Park brought kids in her neighborhood together to create their own mural. With latex paint donated by another community member, the “movement walk” came to feature a rainbow of hand-painted native plants, fungi and pollinators such as the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. The neighborhood also painted an “obstacle course” for kids depicting the solar system.
The mural might not be a Van Gogh or a Bansky, but it’s undeniably charming. It’s kids’ artwork. Understood in its circumstances, the art takes on a kind of profundity. The mural came together when we were spending more of our lives inside than with each other— a time especially distressing for children. That sidewalk paint embodies a bit of collaborative childhood joy that managed to persist even when forces beyond our control were keeping us apart. The mural brought kids outside, off their phones and away from screens. In our view, that resilience is worth celebrating, not power-washing away.
We’re sympathetic to those who question why the parent overseeing the art didn’t try to get a permit or approval from the city first. But that kind of process doesn’t yet exist for this kind of sidewalk art in Takoma Park. What is on the books, however, is a vague municipal rule about graffiti and how it “depreciates the value of the affected property.” After a complaint about the artwork, the city of Takoma Park opted to enforce the rule and remove the mural.
Not every local regulation is strictly enforced. It would be odd for our local officials to prosecute every jaywalker or every driver going 1 mile over the speed limit, even though both acts are crimes. There are far more pressing problems we expect our government to focus on. And as the Supreme Court has established, “the machinery of government would not work if it were not allowed a little play in its joints.” What laws our local government chooses to prioritize reflects what it values.
In this case, we believe Takoma Park should have valued a little childhood joy over strict adherence to bureaucracy and regulation. The city easily could have temporarily exempted the mural while it worked to establish a system for approving art projects like the movement walk. The response from some of the city’s officials— to point to the rule book as frozen and sacred and say there’s nothing they can do— is not how our local government should respond to the community.
Unfortunately, in recent weeks, the public debate over the sidewalk art became disappointingly heated, with a few neighbors attacking the children who painted the mural and others attempting to hurt the livelihood of those on the other side of the disagreement.
We should all commit to doing our part to lower the temperature of these types of debates. We can work together to foster productive conversations without name-calling or making things personal. Our national political discourse is ugly enough: we don’t need to replicate any part of it here at home.
At the end of the day, the sidewalk art has already been washed away. What matters now is how we respond to the next kind of movement walk— in policy and in dialogue. For the heart of our county, we hope that collective response prioritizes community above all else.
Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
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