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Murals Teach History, Enlighten Communities

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now some people might pass them by as just so much, well, wallpaper or even one step up from graffiti. But Washington Post writer DeNeen Brown says they offer so much more than that, and she stopped by our Washington, D.C., studios to tell us why she thinks that. Welcome.

NEEN BROWN: Hi, how are you?

MARTIN: How did you even notice this story? I have to tell you that some of the murals in this piece I pass by every day, and I barely even notice them. Why do you think you did?

BROWN: Well, I was on an assignment, but a photographer went out and took pictures of murals throughout the city. And I was asked to write a piece that would explain them, to write kind of an essay piece. And I drove around the city looking at the murals, one of the things that I - a thought that occurred to me is that there are these pieces of beauty in our urban landscape that we often ignore, and they have a message for us.

MARTIN: You write, murals have the same claim to your attention. They are telling you that although you may be pulled by your collar on your way to work or stopped at that red light for longer than you need to be or stressed by a spat with a friend, there's something bigger than those annoying and ugly moments, bigger than the mundane.

BROWN: Right. Yeah, I see them as something that's always there, kind of a stable force in our landscape that no matter how bad your day, you can look up at a corner and see a mural. You can see Carter G. Woodson giving the same lecture over and over again. Or you can look at these really beautiful mural in Shaw, the Shaw neighborhood. And I think they invite you into this kind of imaginary world, and I say in the piece where, you know, red houses are always leaning but never falling, and the sky is always blue or a dove is always flying.

MARTIN: 30 in the morning on the way to work, and they're there when you come home at 11:30 in the evening.

MARTIN: Do you ever get the sense, though, that they belong to a different era, in a way, that these big - part of the reason that these big wall spaces were available is that buildings has been knocked down or there was vacant space, and the reason that there was all this vacant space is not usually a happy reason. And now even though we're in the middle of a downturn, the fact is a lot of these vacant lots are now being filled in. And that's generally considered to be a good thing.

BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: But you're saying, in a way, something's being lost even if something's being gained?

BROWN: Yeah, I think so. I think a number of the murals have disappeared even as I started working on this piece. The Frederick Douglass mural right at 12th and Mass is this one that's gone and now covered up by a condo. And the mural behind Bohemian Caverns on Youth Street, behind the jazz club.

MARTIN: Which isn't Bohemian Caverns anymore. It's a different name.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Okay. Well, now I say in the piece that Miles Davis is still there, but Shirley Horn is gone, and I say it as though they had a divorce overnight. Her face has now been covered up by grey plaster, and the owners say that they'll restore her, but I say in the piece that I don't know whether it'll ever be the same. You know, it's something that we miss. It's something that when they're gone, we take - we realize that we took these pieces of art for granted.

MARTIN: Change is inevitable in the urban environment. You know, Europeans, Eastern Europeans, or the Irish are replaced by African-Americans and Latinos or Asians or whatever sort of new group. And I wonder - and I know you're a reporter, so it's not your job to have, you know, opinions about this, but I wonder if you feel that there's something - is that changeability part of the art of it in the same way that, say, flowers are meant to - cut flowers are meant to perish, and part of their beauty is the fact that they do leave us, that they're temporary? Or do you think perhaps we should make more of an effort to preserve these pieces of neighborhood art?

BROWN: Well, I'm a writer, but I'm also an artist, and one of the things that I believe - I believe that there should be an effort to preserve them because they're part of our life. And art is - I believe art and beauty is essential to our basic needs, and I think they should be preserved as part of the urban landscape.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite? I know it's so terrible to ask you this question, but do you have a favorite mural that you encountered over your travels in doing this piece?

BROWN: Yeah, I think my favorite one is the one of Miles Davis, and there's some dispute over whether this is Shirley Horn or Billie Holiday. But when you stand there in that parking lot, and you look up, and - it's almost like you could feel the music playing from Miles Davis and, you know, hear the songs of Shirley Horn, or I like to imagine that that was Billie Holiday.

MARTIN: And there is something special about the monumental scale of these pieces, isn't there?

BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, it isn't the same as having a picture on your wall - or my wall. I don't know about you, but I don't have any pictures that big on my wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Yeah, I'm impressed by how an artist can take a canvas that big and paint these - some of these pieces I think are masterpieces. When you stand up close, you can see maybe just the cheek or just the lips or just the nose, but from afar, from a few blocks away, you take in the whole painting, and it gives you a different impression, yeah.

MARTIN: DeNeen Brown is a writer for the Washington Post Style section. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. To see her entire piece - to read her entire piece in its entirety - sorry, excuse me. To read her entire piece, it's called "Of Bricks and Beauty," and to see the pictures that accompany the piece, you can go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. DeNeen, thank you so much for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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