Douglas County Commission approves mural project for underpass in southern Lawrence that was previously marked with racist graffiti

photo by: Dylan Lysen

The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, approved a plan to place a mural on a support structure, shown here, of an underpass that goes underneath 31st Street in southern Lawrence.

A new public mural will be installed later this fall on a southern Lawrence underpass that was previously marked with racist graffiti.

The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday approved a plan to allow Van Go, a local art-based social service organization, to place a mural on a support structure of an underpass that goes underneath 31st Street on its way to the Baker Wetlands Trail.

Van Go, which plans to hire 10 to 20 local youth between the ages of 14 and 24 to paint the mural, is expected to complete the project this fall. According to a memo to the commissioners, the mural will fill a 12-by-52-foot support structure and will cost the county about $15,000.

Rick Wright, art director for Van Go, said the project is similar to murals the organization has made in the past, including the mural on the Natural Grocers store located at 1301 West 23rd St. He also noted the project offers the organization a good opportunity to provide services during a difficult time because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“(That) is a really attractive thing for us right now because we love to find ways to engage more youth, and social distancing outdoors on a large mural like this is a lot easier than the confines of our physical space right now,” Wright said.

In October, the commissioners directed county staff to look into the possibility of the mural, which was suggested by resident Cheryl Lester, who noticed the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in the underpass. Lester told the commissioners on Wednesday that she was excited the county was moving forward with the project and she believed working with Van Go was a “win-win.”

The commissioners all agreed at the time that a mural could help deter future graffiti. Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said Wednesday he heard community members express concern that a mural would not do that. However, county staff said studies show that graffiti artists tend to respect murals and leave them alone.

Wright said his anecdotal experience also suggests that murals deter graffiti. He said of the murals the organization has made in the past, only one had been vandalized, and that case was easily repaired.

“I think, generally, there is a respect for the artwork,” Wright said.

Additionally, because the area where the underpass is located often floods in the spring, Wright said Van Go would look into using a sealant on the mural that could protect it from the water. He said that could also help make it easier to clean off future graffiti without damaging the mural itself.

Kelly, who previously served on Van Go’s board, said he was thankful for the project, noting he believed it provided hope to local youth by giving them work to do and helping them gain new skills.

“This is more than a mural,” he said. “This is an incredibly meaningful project to me.”

In other business, the commissioners met for a work session to discuss providing $40,000 of funding to the Douglas County Child Advocacy Center, a new nonprofit organization that aims to provide services for children who have been neglected or abused.

Representatives for the organization said the county funding would help pay the salary of a director, who would then be charged with fundraising for the organization through securing grants. The commissioners did not take any action on the request, but expressed interest in providing the funding in the 2021 budget.

The commissioners also approved spending $42,000 for members of the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to participate in racial equity training with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, also known as GARE. The purpose of the training is to teach the CJCC members how to apply GARE’s racial equity toolkit, which the council plans to apply to the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.

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