By Erin McNutt
Jeannie Tidy is the founder and Executive Director of Community Visions Unlimited, a local non-profit that is responsible for the utility box program art in the New Orleans Metropolitan area. She’s also responsible for doing a lot of other wonderful things that make New Orleans a much better place to live. Jeannie is a tireless community crusader and activist who works tirelessly to make our streets safer and more beautiful.
I first met Jeannie a few years ago when I answered a Craigslist Ad looking for artists to paint utility boxes here in New Orleans. My assignment was to paint two boxes in the Basin Street “neutral ground, dedicated to two local musicians: Deacon John Moore, at Basin Street and St. Louis Street, and Little Freddie King at Basin and St. Peter.
Jeannie has found a way to harness the power of public art to bring joy and happiness into some of the poorest and most dangerous parts of New Orleans. Simultaneously, she is giving local artists the opportunity to display their work to a wider audience.
NCM: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get your start revitalizing neighborhoods?
Jeannie: I’m from New Orleans and I grew up here. I lived here until 1999, when I was recruited to run a program in Petersburg, Virginia. The program in Virginia was similar to Community Visions Unlimited (CVU), which was originally founded to help get rid of blight in our neighborhoods. Then I came home, to the neighborhood of Mid City. We moved into that neighborhood when it was very scary.
The area of Mid-City New Orleans bounded by Ursuline Avenue, Orleans, Broad, and the Bayou had over a hundred vacant buildings. There was constant gunfire and crime everywhere, but I decided to dig in and refused to leave. I started a letter writing campaign to the City Council to improve the neighborhood, back when you had to actually write letters. Through that campaign I learned who all of the code enforcement people were.
I became very adept at knowing all of the police and city codes. I got a code book from the city and I started memorizing the codes. At the same time I also started writing letters to the owners of the properties saying, “CVU would like to find a buyer for your home that will restore it. It doesn’t cost you anything and we aren’t interested in making money off of it, we just want to see the home restored.”
NCM: So CVU wasn’t started in order to paint murals around the city, it was started to combat blight?
Jeannie: CVU was started to empower and enhance neighborhoods. Whether it is for a beautification campaign like painting the utility boxes or planting trees and flowers. For example, we planted all of the trees in that neighborhood in Mid-City. We started three community gardens.
We worked really hard in that neighborhood in Mid-City. The first year we were there was the hardest. My poor husband helped me mow grass on the blighted properties. We just went out and started mowing the grass and cleaning up. We would seek volunteers to come out on a Saturday and pick up trash.
There was a vacant lot filled with abandoned cars and mattresses that we asked the City to clean off so that we could plant our first Community Garden. The City refused our request, so I approached a junk yard operator to tow the abandoned cars away to sell them for scrap. He towed everything off of the lot that was mechanical and that became Parkway Partners first Community Garden. It’s still there to this day, on Dupre and St. Philip.
We would work in the garden with all of the neighbors and their kids. We got to know a lot of people that way. My husband is from the U.K. and he would serve tea in the afternoons. The kids thought that was hilarious.
We created this “barn-raising” momentum where we would recruit people, introduce them to each other, and help them to renovate blighted houses together. They would trade skills. An expert carpenter would barter his skills with a guy that could do electrical work. This helped them afford to renovate their houses and created a really tight knit community. Within three years we had facilitated seventy-five home renovations.
After the Times-Picayune did a big story about our achievements in Mid-City people started contacting me to find them houses to renovate. That’s when my husband said to me, “Here come the speculators!” Occasionally someone would flip one of the houses but most of the buyers stayed in the properties themselves. Flippers never really bothered me. I had created my own little network of contacts and property owners.
NCM: When did CVU start painting the utility boxes?
Jeannie: When Katrina happened, I had just taken a job in San Diego, but we decided to come home because the destruction upset me so badly. We moved back to New Orleans in March 2006. We have a daughter who was living here in New Orleans and we wanted to be near her as well. We moved to Lakeview when it was at its worst and it was a long slow recovery.
I started out as an artist. I’m very impatient and I have a lot of energy. I have a vision of the potential of all of these neighborhoods and want to make it happen. I’ve learned to become more patient with people who don’t see this vision right away.
Art is definitely a big part of revitalization. It makes a neighborhood stronger and brings people together. In 2009 the first utility boxes were painted. At first the Public Works Department wouldn’t even talk to me. Then I apporached another concerned citizen named Denise Thorton, whose husband manages the Superdome, who loved the idea and was well connected enough to pick up the phone and get me an appointment with the city’s Head of Public Works, Robert Mendoza. He said that it was against policy at the Department of Public Works to give us a formal letter giving us permission to paint the utility boxes; however, if we could get the neighborhoods to do it, there would be a “gentleman’s agreement” that the Department of Public Works wouldn’t get in our way.
Sure enough, Councilwoman Susan Guidry loved the project. She got us our first grant to get started. And eventually we got more money to do more.
Originally we set out to paint ten utility boxes, but I would drive around town and see these really trashy boxes covered in graffiti and bumper stickers and I started making a list of utility boxes that needed to be redone. Other citizens started to call me wanting to know how they could get a painted utility box in their neighborhood. It started to become a grass roots effort to raise money to paint the boxes.
Our budget for each box is $750. We pay each artist $250 and we furnish them with all of the paint that they need and the primer, which is very expensive at almost $50 a gallon! We also pay for chemicals needed to clean the boxes. I’ve also had to scrape off stickers with razor blades. Some boxes are worse than others to prep.
NCM: How many boxes have been painted?
Jeannie: We’ve painted 165 so far, and I’ve raised over $100,000 to pay for them. We’re doing more all of the time. Four are presently in the pipeline. We have boxes in St. Bernard Parish, Jefferson Parish, and Orleans Parish. I hope to get boxes done all of the way down into St Bernard and Holy Cross. That’s my goal in the next year.
People are so excited. Businesses are calling and wanting to donate money to get a box. I’m even working on putting together a book about the boxes and the neighborhoods where they’re located.
Every once in a while a box gets damaged or wiped out and we’ll have to get new artists to paint new boxes because some of the artists have moved on, but I love dealing with problems and figuring out ways to solve them. My grandmother always told me to find a way to get my toe in the door and that is how you force the door to get a little wider.
NCM: How do you find the artists to paint the boxes?
Jeannie: Artists can go online to our website, download the forms and email them back to us. Every time a new box comes up to paint we send out a brief description of the proposed theme and where it is located to all of the artists on our list. Artists will then submit renderings of their ideas for our art committee and a neighborhood representative to review. The committee judges strictly on the rendering, we don’t reveal the identity of the artist to them. Then the art committee chooses one of the artists to paint that box.
A lot of the artwork is really incredible. And it requires a lot of coordination because most of the artists have other jobs. It is the most inclusive way that I can think of to make it fair for the artist. It’s such a joy to see the finished product.
NCM: Have you ever had trouble with people destroying or vandalizing the boxes?
Jeannie: We had one box on Esplanade right by Decatur where the artist left the bottom blank and that part of it was vandalized. I called and asked her to paint flowers along the bottom and they left it alone since she fixed it. They really never touched the upper part of it.
When those monument activists came here from out of state, they started putting posters on some of the boxes in Mid-City. The president of the neighborhood association in Mid-City got so angry that she contacted their organization and threatened to sue. We were able to get the posters off pretty easily. Luckily the glue didn’t stick very well.
Overall I would say that that the utility box program has been a huge success. To just have a few blips like that is a miracle. I do think that people really respect the artwork. The neighborhoods also have a vested interest in taking care of the boxes because we had to get their permission to paint them and they helped select the artists.
For example, before we started, Jefferson Davis Parkway was a dump. There was garbage everywhere and we used contractor bags and a team of people to help clean it up. We’ve noticed now that the painted boxes not only beautify the area, but they also stop people from littering!
NCM: When I painted the box in honor of Little Freddie King next to the fire station on Basin and St. Peters, I noticed that the firemen kept coming out and checking on me to make sure that I had everything I needed and that no one was bothering me while I tried to work. I think that they were very proud of that box.
Jeannie: The artists have all told me stories like that. That people have brought them popsicles and plate lunches. Because the residents worry about them painting out there in the hot sun.
If you’d like to learn more about Community Visions Unlimited, you can visit their website at www.cvunola.org. They’re always looking for more artists to paint boxes. You can also donate money to help pay for an artist to paint a box.