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Hartford Proposes Restricting Graffiti at 'Heaven' Skate Park

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE

July 08, 2013

HARTFORD Not everyone believes this Heaven is beautiful.

The graffiti-covered skate park atop the I-84 tunnel is either an impressive exhibition of urban street art, or an eyesore one that is upsetting corporate neighbors who view the graffiti as bad for downtown businesses.

The concrete plaza, formally named New Ross, County Wexford Park in honor of Hartford's sister town in Ireland, is located off Main Street and is the only city-sanctioned public space where people are allowed to spray paint.

After hearing concerns from local businesses and police officers, city officials are now considering a policy that would limit graffiti to two walls.

The new restrictions would coincide with a $163,000 improvement project for Heaven that would make it an official skate park with a platform, grind ledges, stairs and a handrail. The six- to eight-week construction could begin in mid-August, pending approval from the state Department of Transportation.

Aside from the two designated walls, the rest of the park "shall be completely cleaned up," according to a draft policy developed by the city's public works, police and development services departments. Other walls and areas tagged with graffiti would be power-washed or painted over with a neutral color.

The city also is open to allowing professional artists to paint murals on certain walls, an idea that park advocates and business groups support. Hartford's chief operating officer is currently reviewing the proposed policy, said Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for Mayor Pedro Segarra.

"If you're coming into the downtown from the north side, what you see at the moment is graffiti everywhere," said Michael Zaleski, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District, which represents property owners. With more rules, "the park can be something we're proud of and not the mess that it is at the moment."

T.J. Clynch, president of the Business for Downtown Hartford merchants association, said Wednesday that he is concerned about youth crossing busy streets to reach the park. So far, he said, business owners have not seen a comprehensive plan that addresses pedestrian safety or exactly how the city would enforce the graffiti rules.

"We just want to see the plan executed correctly," said Clynch, who owns Downtown Yoga and Civic Mind design studios. "It's hard to imagine you're going to contain a group of kids who are looking for more freedom and ways of expression ... .

"How do you go backwards from, 'Here's everything' to 'Here are two walls'?"

City resident Jose "Zulu" Camacho said he agrees there needs to be more structure at the park, but is frustrated with the proposed restrictions. The hip-hop promoter has long advocated for the skate park, which he views as a countercultural mecca of sorts in Greater Hartford.

Camacho suggested creating semi-permanent murals on all the remaining building surfaces inside the park. Returning them to a neutral color is "basically creating an open canvas for people" who will flout the rules, he said.

"Everything's tagged up right now," said Camacho, 35. "I think it's beautiful the way it is .... It's not menacing to me."

Mark Tamaccio, an architect in the city's public works department, said discussions are ongoing but he doesn't expect "100 percent" of the surfaces to have graffiti and murals. The draft policy calls for a city ordinance to be written with "clear direction of allowable and prohibited graffiti practices, with solid enforcement guidelines and penalties."

The city seeks a balance between artistic expression and consideration for nearby businesses, Tamaccio said. He called the park's triangular area at the corners of Main, Trumbull and Morgan streets "an important piece of real estate" a gateway into downtown.

While Tamaccio praised Heaven's bright artwork, "there are kids that just go in with a spray can to raise havoc and don't care who sees it," he said. "We're trying to discourage the latter."

In 2010, the city council accepted recommendations from a skateboarding task force for improvements to the concrete refuge, or "heaven," where suburban and city skateboarders and BMX bikers have gathered since the park's founding in 1995. One of the recommendations was for "an urban-art wall."

Without any signage indicating what is allowed or off-limits, park advocates and city officials have conceded that Heaven has turned into an aerosol painting free-for-all. Police officers don't know what they can enforce, Tamaccio said, "and businesses don't know what to expect."

On a recent cloudy afternoon, Waterbury resident Confesor Rossy Jr. visited the park to take photos of the graffiti. Nearby, a trash bin was overflowing with spent spray cans.

"This is a positive thing," said Rossy, 38, a former hip-hop breakdancer. "They're not killing anybody."

About three to five times a week, artists from New York, Massachusetts and around Connecticut come to practice their craft on the park's buildings, Camacho said, creating an ever-changing exhibit of colorful images and bubble words on the walls.

However, the park's monument to the Irish, a playground slide, metal trash bins, concrete ledges, decorative light poles and the ground itself have been vandalized with rudimentary spray painting.

The 23-story office tower at 20 Church St. informally known as the Stilts Building and home to several law firms, among other corporate tenants has a direct view of the park from the north. The owner, Hampshire Companies, has invested millions in renovating the building and is "concerned about the spread of graffiti," Zaleski said.

Other neighbors include the towering Ramada Plaza, Prudential Financial and the Hilton Hartford, along with small businesses a block away.

Camacho and Brendan Mahoney, both part of the Friends of Heaven group that has fundraised and volunteered to clean the skate park, said tension over the graffiti escalated in recent months because of a vandal who has painted phalluses on others' artwork. Someone's dragon, for instance, was defaced.

"That's what I'm disappointed in," said Camacho, who pledged to follow city policy if it becomes official. "That little kid is really messing it up for all of us."

"It's been vexing," said Mahoney, who maintains a website called Heaven in Hartford: Concrete Paradise. He accepts the city's proposal but wished that the park enforced rules from the start. "It would have been nice had we put up signs three years ago."

Mahoney and Camacho's main concern is ensuring the skate park is constructed. The project has received a $150,000 community development block grant from the city, $10,000 from the Tony Hawk Foundation and about $3,000 that Camacho and others raised. Stantec and Who Skates have been chosen as the designer and builder, respectively.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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