By: Risa Horn
From my first week as Dudley Street's Artist in Residence, people have been talking to me about the Leon Building. They've been talking about how they imagine the building could be transformed in big and little ways: what kind of building they would like to see there, how it's sidewalk presence needs to change immediately, what kind of artistic interventions they imagine on the building, and all different perspectives about the current state of the building.
A few weeks ago, Ché Madyun, local artist and DSNI Founder, and I sat outside, La Familia Grocery II, directly across from the Leon building and observed the activity of the street for about 45 minutes. It was 4pm and Dudley Street was crowded with cars and buses moving up and down the street. After about 30 minutes of watching the street's rhythm, my perception of the Leon building began to shift. I noticed that it stood out as one of the only things I could see that was not connected to the movement or sounds of the hot afternoon. I suppose that fact highlights the building's disconnection from community life, but it also opened up the idea that the building is a silent and knowledgeable witness to the life of the community. The role of silent witness is very different than the label of neighborhood blight, and I thought the ideas was intriguing and worth sharing in an artistic and public way.
A few days later, I wove a sign out of artificial flowers that said "WITNESS" on the fence of the Leon Building facing Dudley Street. I've seen these bright yellow artificial flowers used for street memorials along Dudley Street, including a memorial just a few blocks from the Kroc center, and they are sold at a dollar store in Dudley Square. In my conversations with residents and other artists, it has also come up that these flowers are also common decoration in Caribbean households. While creating the sign, I was interested in using materials that were already part of the everyday fabric of Dudley Street, but using them in an unexpected way to introduce an unexpected element to Dudley Street's everyday bustle.
It is also an important note that during the week of my observation with Ché, I heard that a man was killed outside of the Leon Building, as a means of keeping him from asking for change outside on the building's front steps.
The WITNESS sign currently stands on Dudley Street, as it has for a week and a half, without an explicit explanation. Instead, it leaves people to notice the message and wonder about why it is here, in this space, and to create their own connections and explanations.
While I was creating and maintaining the sign, residents frequently approached me on the sidewalk and from their cars, asking me what I was doing and why. All of the feedback has been 100% positive. Many expresses how much they liked the sign, but warned that it might be taken down soon. I've had quite a few rich conversations with folks, including the refection of one resident, who said, "It is beautiful and it makes people think. We are happy to have it here."
I pose these questions to you:
What would the Leon Building say if it could talk?
What buildings on Dudley Street have a story that needs to be told in a louder voice?