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Graffiti Graveyard: The decline of Bubble Gum Alley

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily News Editor
Published September 12, 2013

Walking down East Liberty Street, it can be easy to forget that the University’s Central Campus and hub of student activity is hardly more than a stone’s throw away. Vacant storefronts seem to outnumber thriving businesses, panhandlers camp out on street corners, and in Liberty Park Plaza and the smell of urine emanates from alleyways.

But for many University students, Ann Arbor residents and artists around the country, East Liberty Street isn’t just another struggling city block; it’s home to one of the state’s most celebrated public art spaces.

Known as Poet’s Alley, Bubble Gum Alley or, most commonly, Graffiti Alley, the space, which runs from East Liberty to Washington Street, has provided street artists and high-school students alike with a blank canvas for artistic expression.

According to Ann Arbor’s Wikipedia page, graffiti first started appearing in the alley in the 1980s, and soon a number of graffiti artists were collaborating on murals and other projects.

A negative reputation

In 1999, the city of Ann Arbor commissioned artist Katherine Tombeau Cost to create a city-approved mural, a five-month project that she titled “Infinite Possibilities.” The mural was featured in countless newspapers and art blogs and became a symbol for Ann Arbor’s thriving public art scene.

Graffiti slowly made its way back to the walls, covering parts of the city-commissioned artwork. Then, in July 2008, the alley was white-washed of Tombeau Cost’s mural by vandals. Instead of the vibrantly-colored and illustrated bricks, there stood a simplistic drawing of a singular figure next to the word “lonely...”.

Soon, the graffiti artists and high-school students were back to adding art and expression to the blank walls, transforming it into the colorful, sometimes crude, public art display it is today. Stencils of President Barack Obama are placed next to the words “You Are A Terrorist.” A few feet away, a clumsily drawn heart encompasses the initials of two would-be lovers. The work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg is painted onto the ceiling of the entryway.

“Who can live without hope?”

But the alley isn’t the same, even with graffiti gracing its walls once more, at least not lately. Brian Woolridge, an Ann Arbor resident who most students knew from his Michael Jackson-fueled dance sessions, is noticeably absent. Woolridge was a fixture at the East Liberty alley since 1995, years before the original mural was commissioned.

“It wasn’t really used for anything, and everything was plain and I just tried to see what would happen if I danced,” he told AnnArbor.com in 2011, “and I've been dancing ever since.”

But Ann Arbor’s King of Pop may have had his last dance. As one University student passed by the alley, he mentioned he hadn’t seen the performer in more than a year.

In fact, much of the Liberty Street and State Street areas are beginning to look less and less like home. Many of the independently-owned boutiques and shops have closed, one after the other, to make room for Walgreens and other national chains. As retail vacancies on East Liberty Street in particular continue to rise, residents and near by businesses have complained to Ann Arbor City Council about an increase in homeless people and loiterers around the alley, and the city itself has begun to crack down on graffiti. But whether or not the alley deserves its increasingly negative reputation is a different question.

A space for expression

During the day, the alley buzzes with activity. High-school students pose for senior photos, a couple from out of town gazes at the cartoon drawings of Homer Simpson and a few people pass through on their way from the parking garage on Washington.

Michael June, a junior at Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School, came to the alley to take pictures for his photography class. He said the space is popular with his classmates and was the first place he thought of when he needed to get some inspiration for his assignment.

“It’s a (good) place for photography and expression,” June said. “People can just draw and spray-paint whatever they want ... expression is a big thing here.”

He said though he can see how people looking in from the street might get the wrong impression, he’s never felt unsafe hanging out there, especially given the relative security of the city.

“It looks like it from the outside,” he said. “But you’re never going to get mugged in Ann Arbor. It’s a pretty nice place here.”

After June leaves, two different sets of photographers walk through within the span of 10 minutes, a testament to the alley’s attractive qualities among artists. One man carries equipment, while another, Detroit photographer Mike Boening, said he came to Ann Arbor to scope out scenery for senior photos and heard that the alley would provide a great backdrop.

“It’s not a shady area to me,” Boening said. “Not from what I’ve been around.”

After Boening leaves to look for a different shooting location on State Street, a handful of University students meander through, Instagramming photos and sketching in their notebooks. As the sun shines and people pass happily on the street, it certainly doesn’t look like the sinister space some make it out to be.

But the night tells a slightly different story. With Necto Nightclub and Scorekeepers Bar and Grill just across the street, a slew of interesting characters can be found smoking (possibly cigarettes) just outside the clubs. A man asks a group of bar-hoppers for money, while a girl crosses to the other side of the street to avoid the scene.

There are groups of panhandlers crowded on various corners on both sides of East Liberty Street. At around 11 p.m., as the party at Necto starts to populate and people congregate around the alley, it’s easy to see why business owners would be worried about the effect the area would have on their business.

But after the groups move into Necto, the street is relatively quiet. The alley is empty, and those who are out only pass through on their way to or from Washington Street.

For Naser Ras, a manager at Hommus Express, and Doreen Sun, a manager at TK WU, the alley poses no problems to their businesses, which operate primarily during the day.

Sun, who has been a manager at TK WU for 10 years, said though she personally has never had bad experiences with panhandlers or rowdy teenagers, the owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, which closed at the end of March and was located right next to the alley, used to complain about the effects of the alley on her business.

“We have a lot of homeless that come to our store to buy food, but I don’t think it’s a problem,” Sun said. “It doesn’t bother us.”

The space previously occupied by Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is currently unoccupied, but will soon house Tamaki, a custom sushi restaurant.

Ann Arbor City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) wrote in an e-mail interview that the city has worked closely with human service organizations in the past couple years to combat homelessness in the area, as well as provide support to those facing addiction and mental health issues.

In a 2011 interview with AnnArbor.com, Briere said “there’s a certain lawless nature to the area.” Now, however, things have improved and Briere even receives proposals to hold art exhibits in the alley.

“A couple of years ago, I was hearing that there were people in need of help — and in denial that they needed help — who demanded money from those just walking through,” Briere wrote. “Have the alleys changed? I think so.”

A complex public space

Briere and others have taken strides to ensure that all residents and visitors of Ann Arbor feel safe in the streets. But for some, the very fact that the alley makes people uncomfortable is reason to celebrate it.

Over the years, Nick Tobier, an associate professor in the School of Art & Design, has watched the State Street area transform from a place that housed mostly local businesses, to one overrun with national chains and corporations. Tobier, whose work focuses on public art, said Graffiti Alley offers the city a refreshing break from the corporatized America that can be found in any town.

“I think that Graffiti Alley helps contribute to the sense of an eccentric place,” Tobier said. “It’s really necessary in a complex city to have places that are, I don’t mean deviant in a bad (way), but I mean slightly apart from mainstream consumer culture.”

Tobier said the abundance of panhandlers and teenagers who make some local business owners and residents uncomfortable are a direct result of the State Street changes. He said it’s inevitable that people will gravitate towards “unbranded corporate-logo spaces” like the alley.

That’s not to say Tobier endorses crime. On the contrary, he and many other artists advocate for the space as a way to make sure everyone in the city has the chance to say something or to express themselves in an artistic way.

“I’m all for safe streets; I don’t want people to feel vulnerable,” he said. “But teenagers feel vulnerable. They need to feel like there’s a place where they can leave their mark or they can do their own thing without someone shouting at them.”

With the rejection of the proposed art millage on last November’s ballot — which would have provided funds for public art installation projects such as murals or sculptures — followed by the suspension of the Percent for Art program, the future of public art in the city remains unclear.

In Tobier’s eyes, Graffiti Alley can help fill the void and provide Ann Arbor with a necessary place for expression in a public setting. He said Ann Arbor has a ways to go in improving its public art scene in all different scales.

“The reflection of a complex society is a complex public space. You need all types of things to be able to exist,” he said.