Rebecca Bass eased what used to be a Saturn station wagon up on the median in the middle of Heights Boulevard, careful that none of the bejeweled yogis fell off. The last time she’d driven “Earth, Wind, Fire (and Water),” a police officer at the Free Press Summerfest had hurried her over a curb – ad idea; art cars should never be hurried – and she’d lost one of the bead-covered Styrofoam figures carved by her art class at Davis High.
Furious, she jumped out, retrieved the yogi, and griped a little at the cop. Then she sped away – or, at least, as fast as she dared in a hallucinogenic vision that involves not just yogis that move up and down on robotic arms, but also a fire-spitting eagle, a fog machine and even a computerized water fountain programmed by a Davis robotics crew. “Earth Wind,” to say the least, wasn’t built for speed.
It was built, like all art cars, to be looked at – and like all art cars, it spends too much time hidden away from spectators, languishing in a garage or driveway, unable to flaunt its showy self. So that’s why, on this Friday evening, Bass was easing “Earth, Wind” onto the median in front of the Art Car Museum: to show how terrific a rotating exhibit of art cars on that median could look, to show how, for practically no money, great displays of public art would be possible for the whole city. The grassy middle-of-the-street nowhere could be a landmark. And the city’s best art cars would have a new, high-visibility spot to be seen as they’re meant to be seen: From the road.
Taking it slow, Bass parked “Earth, Wind” on the median; even the freshly reglued yogi stayed firm. And as the evening light glinted off the car-sculpture’s silvery skin, the idea of an art-car park in the median looked very fine indeed.
‘Jogging trail to nowhere’
It’s cruel fun to say the phrase “Ainbinder 380 agreement” in the Heights. People’s faces turn red or deep purple, and their jaws lock tight. Some make involuntary moans; others are struck speechless.
If the phrase means nothing to you – if you don’t automatically recall every gory detail of the controversial agreement between the city and the developer of the Walmart-anchored Washington Heights shopping complex near the Heights – then you’re probably also unaware that a tiny part of the $6 million deal involved the median in front of the Art Car Museum. In exchange for tax incentives, Ainbinder promised to make upgrades to its own property – the Walmart chunk west of Yale, as well as the strip-center bit facing Heights Boulevard – and the public land surrounding it. One of those upgrades was to add a $76,000 landscaped trail to the median on Heights Boulevard, between the Art Car Museum and Ainbinder’s strip-center-in-the-making.
The Stop the Heights Walmart forces argued that the public upgrades weren’t worth the public money, and that the 21/2-block path on the median was a “jogging trail to nowhere,” unconnected to the longer jogging trail north of White Oak Bayou and Interstate 10. And recently, when I walked the path with Jonathan C.C. Day, a Heights lawyer active in the protest, I had to admit that they were right. Even if the landscaping turns out to be marvelous, there’s no obvious reason for anyone to bother crossing the street to walk on that pedestrian path. Two and a half blocks isn’t long enough for a satisfying jog or walk. Funny little loops at either end of the path indicate that you’re supposed to turn around, repeating the path until you’ve tired yourself out. But who in their right mind would do that?
A call for public art
As it stands, the upgraded median makes sense not as a public, pedestrian amenity, but as the entrance to the new Ainbinder strip-center development across the street from the Art Car Museum – a landscape announcement that this brick strip mall is very classy indeed.
Day firmly believes that the city should squeeze more out of the developer, that in return for the tax rebate, the public should receive something highly visible, and of solid public value. Why not an art-car park? Why not make that trail to nowhere into something better and bigger than a strip-mall entrance?
Spurred by Day’s idea, the Art Car Museum and the city’s Public Works Department are now discussing a deal. Day, though, isn’t in on those discussions – presumably because of his insistence that, at this late date, Ainbinder pony up lots more money for the project.
But really, it doesn’t seem that lots more money or the developer’s involvement would be needed – just a tad to cover insurance, and to draft rules making sure that the cars, carlike objects and sculptures aren’t dangerous or obscene. Stuff like that can be worked out; I have high hopes.
Art car displays on the median won’t make the Heights any happier with the Walmart development; they’d be completely unrelated to it. But they would make that median a much better place. As Noah Edmundson, the Art Car Museum’s director, told me recently, “This city needs more public art. That’s all there is to it.”