One Last Glimpse at the Artwork That Marks the Buildings at Bartlett Yard
Housing units, retail space, and restaurants will soon replace the artistic outdoor space.
Along a busy stretch of Washington Street, not far from Dudley Square, where a multi-million dollar redevelopment is taking place, sits a plot of land that was once, years ago, home to an MBTA bus maintenance facility.
Long void of vehicles and transit workers, for the last few decades the 8.6-acre parcel, known as Bartlett Yard, has been home to nothing more than crumbling, gutted warehouses and cement building blocks that seemingly rise from overgrown weeds embedded in the cracked concrete, pocking the now-vacant lot, all of it hidden behind a chain-link fence covered in a green tarp.
But thanks to the keen eye of art and events organizer Jason Turgeon, along with a partnership with the developers Nuestra Comunidad and Windale Development, the buildings haven’t simply gone to waste as they await their inevitable destruction, which will gradually make way for an extensive retail and housing redevelopment project called Bartlett Place.
For the last 10 months, the space has instead served as an urban canvas for artists, many who produce their work using canisters of spray paint, and it’s also brought together the creative minds who live in Roxbury and far beyond for community activities, concerts, and festivals.
Before the drastic facelift gets underway, Turgeon led Boston through the lot and each of its buildings for a final glimpse of the works created by muralists, sculptors, and graffiti artists alike. Because when the bulldozers come in and these buildings fall to the ground, the artwork that brings color to their grayish exteriors will be turned to rubble alongside them.
A ‘Creative Village’
“It’s all coming down soon,” said Turgeon on a recent spring-like morning as he stood at the entrance to Bartlett Yard, looking out at the structures set against the skyline. “It was supposed to come down four months ago, so it will definitely be any day now.”
Like many redevelopment projects, the mixed-use buildings scheduled for construction at Bartlett Yard have been met with delays. Luckily for Turgeon and fellow events producer Jeremy Alliger, of Alliger Arts, the minor setbacks have given them a chance to extend the site as an offering to the community, allowing artists to apply their talents to the landscape in the form of bright, colorful murals.
Last summer, with the blessing of the property owners, Turgeon and Alliger launched the Events at Bartlett Yard, a temporary, season-long series of community gatherings ranging from cultural celebrations to block parties. Most notably, graffiti artists and muralists were tapped to takeover the site and turn the dilapidated building fronts into eye-popping abstractions. In many ways, the project was a labor of love for Turgeon, whose vision followed a tedious period of working through City Hall bureaucracy to get the necessary paperwork and permits in place.
Eventually, a select few artists were welcomed to apply their visions to the old garage doors that led to the abandoned bus depots, but by the time the Events at Bartlett Yard series wrapped up in September, nearly the entire site was covered top to bottom, inside and out, with intricate graffiti. “Guys are still coming in, even now,” said Turgeon. “They have tightened [security] up a lot, but people still sneak in.”
As Turgeon pointed out a mural of Rosa Parks and an Orange Line train, both of which face Washington Street, two graffiti artists gently squeezed through the fence that separates the site from the rest of the neighborhood, bags of spray paint in tow. Turgeon, who recognized the artists, said a brief hello before the pair continued on and disappeared inside one of the buildings at the back of the property. “There is just really not another place in Boston for people to do this kind of artwork,” he said.
At least legally, that is.
But even when graffiti artists can longer come and go, and roam through the property as they please—whether with selective permission or illegally—Turgeon said he’s optimistic about the notion that the developers of Bartlett Place have promised to keep the arts as a centerpiece of the reconstituted landscape.
To keep that promise, Nuestra Comunidad and Windale Development recently applied for a $400,000 creative placemaking grant through ArtPlace America, which would allow the developers to turn Bartlett Place into a “temporary public plaza to host arts events and foster economic development.” The winner of the grant will be announced in June. “The grant would allow us to do a lot more to keep the arts here,” said Turgeon. “They want to keep this area to be really focused on the arts. They’re billing it as a ‘creative village.’”
He said they were “bending over backwards to make this really cool” even if it will no longer be covered in murals.
Art from Near and Far
Splashed against one wall are the words ‘Thank You,’ and to the right, an image of Rosa Parks. Above the lettering sits a mural of an Orange Line train that looks as though it’s bursting out of the brick walls of Bartlett Yard, and traveling toward the street just beyond. Below, on the cold, brownish ground, an abstract, swirling painting creates a dizzying effect when stared at directly.
These are just some of the vibrant, eye-catching works that were commissioned by Turgeon and his crew to be shown off to the public during the summer series last year. “A team of artists did these, to tie in the theme of the bus yard and the diversity of the community,” Turgeon said, pointing at the Parks mural, set in black and white, before directing his attention to the painting of the train. “We had these guys who are basically all local, but really, people came from just all over. At one point, they were running out of places to paint.”
About half a football field away, a giant rendering of a cricket is plastered along a set of closed garage doors, painted by two artists that came all the way from England. “Someone else came from Paris, and another artist came from Argentina, too,” said Turgeon of the mix of talented painters that were part of the mural festival last summer. “It was pretty much a playground for them.”
Walking further into the abandoned property, and turning a corner west toward a massive concrete wall, the paintings are almost everywhere. Some were created by members of Artists for Humanity, and others—mostly abstract sculptures made from scraps in the yard, left behind by former transit workers—by students from local colleges and universities; some were even done by high school kids.
Near the far end of the yard, on the opposite side of the entrance, an old shack that housed a long-broken air-compressor was repurposed into a pastel-colored hut with a life-sized Styrofoam pink monster standing guard at its entrance. Turgeon, hesitant at first—“sometimes junkies end up sleeping here,” he said—slowly opened the door to reveal the insides of the shack. “We didn’t know what to do with this room,” he said, walking inside to show the air-compressor, now painted in bursting hues of pink and blue. “But they turned it into this incredible little art nook.”
Around the compressor, the brightly colored walls were marked with stencils of cactuses and clouds. “It used to be this black, disgusting piece of equipment,” said Turgeon. But now, it was one of his favorite items on the property.
Just outside the hut sat two enormous sneakers, slightly caved-in and battered by the harsh New England winter. The shoes were made from old pieces of tire, fire hoses, and bits of chopped-up rug. “It’s called an ‘invasive vine sculpture,’” he said of the branch laces that were intertwined through the shoes. “It was one of the biggest hits because, you know, the connection of sneakers and the hip-hop culture. People would drive by all of the murals and then get to the sneakers and just stop—there was always a car right there, looking at them,” he said, pointing past the fence and out at the roadway.
While the Events at Bartlett Yard brought together artists from all over the world, local residents would also shuffle in, some even who once worked at the bus depot when it was still open. “One woman came here and was reminiscing about her time cleaning buses until 1 a.m.,” said Turgeon. “Imagine that? She was so happy to come here and see something happen with the abandoned place where she basically spent her entire career.”
‘We Never Thought This Could Happen’
As Turgeon continued to walk through the property, he occasionally dipped into some of the buildings to show off the interiors, where the maintenance areas gave way to moldy, wet ground, and became graveyards for paint-rollers, spray-paint canisters, and other art supplies.
In a stretch of deserted property that looked like an old warehouse, the clacking of spray-paint cans echoed throughout the building. As Turgeon moved closer to the sound of aerosol meeting the cold concrete, two graffiti artists—the same ones he greeted earlier that day—worked on creating new projects of their own. “Originally, no one was supposed to gain access to the inside, but really, there was no keeping them out,” said Turgeon.
That was no surprise: the Bartlett Yard, beyond the city-commissioned event series, is an attractive place for these kinds of artists. Gaining access to the facilities sometimes eliminated the fear of being arrested by the police for tagging and marking property with murals and street monikers. “It’s a place you can come and be yourself without worrying about running from the cops,” said artist Tony Diaz, as he took a break from painting the side of a wall. “It’s funny to see an old MBTA space utilized for this, because in Boston, for a lot of people, when it comes to art, it matters what you have in your hand. For most people, doing this with a brush is a lot different than doing this with a can.”
Diaz, like Turgeon and the officials who put the resources into allowing the bus depot to become something besides a wasteland, would like to see “more of this” type of collaboration with the help of the new mayor. “I’ve been down here countless hours,” Diaz said, standing next to piles of spray-paint canisters, blue speckles of paint dotting his hands. “We fought for this place and to be able to do this. It would be nice if there was more opportunities like this. … Otherwise we’re in the middle of nowhere, under a bridge or something. It’s more out of sight, out of mind.”
Unfortunately, not everyone who’s entered the site has been as responsible about their aspirations as Diaz and his friends.
Tags and non-artistic scribbles have overcome many of the murals painted on the walls by commissioned artists and those welcomed to the property. A piano that Turgeon had moved in was pulled out from under an awning and left to deteriorate in the snow and rain. A mini-library that housed free books for the public was lit on fire and burned to the ground.
“A lot of things have left a bad taste in my mouth. I did this for free as a nice thing for my neighborhood, and only asked that they not fuck it up. And of course, they found a way to fuck it up,” said Turgeon. “That’s the part of graffiti culture where they’re their own worst enemy. You’re not sticking it to the man when you’re fucking up a free piano, or lighting this stuff on fire.”
But Turgeon still feels a sense of pride when he talks about what he was able to accomplish in the blip of time in the longer era that Bartlett Yard has been on Washington Street. Admittedly, he’ll be “bummed” when the construction crews begin to turn those buildings—those murals, especially—into rubble, but that was the plan all along. “I’m going to be sad when I can’t drive by [the artwork] and say ‘I did that,’” he said. “It will be sad when it finally does come down. But I’m excited to have at least something besides a bombed-out, old bus yard.”