Is this mural the writing on the wall for Brownsville?

The city-commissioned mural has set off a debate over gentrification, representation, SpaceX and more.

By Kristen CabreraJanuary 3, 2022 1:36 pm, , ,

Art can often provoke emotional reactions from those who witness it. But a new mural in Brownsville might be garnering reactions that the city, who commissioned it, didn’t intend.

Brownsville, with the help of $10 million from Elon Musk’s Musk Foundation, paid a Los Angeles-based artist $20,000 to paint a mural on the side of the city’s old Capitol Theater building. It has colorful graphical elements and the letters “BTX.”

But Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon says many residents have argued that the mural is not a reflection of their community,  that it’s another example of how the tech world has tried to reshape it in recent years. Solomon’s latest work for the magazine explores this latest conflict. Listen to the interview with Solomon in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.

Texas Standard: The city thought it was doing something really nice for Brownsville with this mural. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Dan Solomon: Well, the city paid for a series of three murals using money that they received from the Musk Foundation in a kind of unanticipated donation that was announced by Elon Musk on Twitter earlier this year. So he said that he was going to surprise Brownsville with $10 million for downtown revitalization, and part of that went towards a series of murals.

And the first mural was a piece created by an L.A.-based artist named Teddy Kelly, and he was paid $20,000 to make this piece. And people in Brownsville got pretty upset when they learned how much he was paid and the fact that it was an out-of-town artist who was hired to create this first piece rather than someone local. Twenty-thousand dollars – this is a lot of money anywhere, but it’s especially a lot in Brownsville, which where it’s almost half the average median family income.

Tell us a little bit about what the mural looks like. Do they have any objections to the actual image?

Yes and no. The mural is a pink sort of “Instagram” wall. It’s got some kind of geometric shapes on it, and the letters BTX. It’s not really impassioned art; it doesn’t say much about Brownsville, which makes sense because the artist isn’t from Brownsville. So it doesn’t really reflect anything particular about the community.

If you took the BTX off and put, you know, “Shake Shack” on there, it would look like the site of a Shake Shack. It’s just kind of, I don’t want to describe it as generic, but it doesn’t particularly tie in to Brownsville and people, I think, where, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a mural, the city is going to spend a lot of money on a mural in Brownsville, they wanted it to reflect something that that served their community.

It seems like there is more than just a mural that’s at issue here. In a sense, we’re talking about how the city understands itself, and perhaps some friction with the source of funds for for this mural.

Yeah, I think that’s accurate. So when SpaceX moved to Brownsville a few years ago, it caused a lot of concern, with some people in the community who were afraid that it was going to raise the cost of living, that it was going to change the culture of the city and bring in a lot of people who didn’t understand Brownsville and work from there without giving much back. And the hope has been that there would be sort of a rising tide that would lift all boats. And if there’s a lot of SpaceX money going around, then that would also be money that eventually gets paid to people like artists because someone will hire them to do murals and things like that, that musicians will make more money because there will be people who want to see them perform who have more money.

And the mural, I think, exemplifies the the negative version of that, which is, what if all of this money coming in to Brownsville  just gets spent on people who aren’t from there and just gets spread around other people who are not local to Brownsville, and that if you’re an artist in Brownsville or a musician or a seamstress or anything else, that you find yourself out of opportunities and all of this money going around just raises your rent, but it doesn’t end up in your pocket.

What about the city of Brownsville? How has it responded to this negative reaction?

The mayor of Brownsville would prefer not to talk about this. He finds the whole thing, I think, kind of ridiculous. He, you know, spending a lot of time and a lot of energy trying to facilitate Brownsville becoming a place where engineering and aerospace are at the forefront of the economy and of the city’s culture, and he’s not very interested. And people being upset about this mural, he says that it’s a very small percentage of people, which might be true. He thinks it’s a small percentage of people and that they’re just kind of making noise.

I will say that the people I talked to aren’t professional noisemakers, necessarily. There are a lot of people who voted for the mayor, were kind of cautiously optimistic about SpaceX when it started and now have kind of soured on the whole thing, in part, because of things like this mural, and also because rockets keep exploding and they’ve seen their rent rise, and they’re concerned that this is only going to get worse.

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