By Grace Mottley
Special to The Sentinel
RIVERDALE – Alan Binstock stood back and admired the slim pillar of glass rising from the end of the trail. The resin disks reflect colored light, creating a grassy field of rainbows on the edge of the rough gravel trail.
He just finished installing the piece, called “totem” on the side of the Rhode Island Trolley trail. The piece, a new part of the Riverdale Park public art initiative, would stand there for a full calendar year before returning to its home at Binstock’s studio.
“It was a simple piece in a simple place,” he said. “Public art is wonderful in that it goes right to people; it’s not about the world of galleries. Everyone can see it and share in it.”
Binstock is one of 13 artists to have recently donated work to the initiative aimed at “revitalizing” the community. Riverdale Park has invested a little over $35,000 into the public art initiative, which aims to use public art as a way to make Riverdale Park a travel destination as an arts and entertainment district, as well as to encourage outside private investment into the community.
“After 30 years of active disinvestment on the part of private businesses over 30 years, and as more suburban communities swelled in public consciousnesses and families have moved, there have been almost 30 years of lower than suitable tax bases,” said Stuart Eisenberg, the director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (HCDC), the group that runs the initiative. “The arts are a mechanism through which we can envision change and transformation.”
Public art signals public investment into the community, something that private investors look for when developing or deciding where to start businesses. Beyond symbolism, it also serves as a practical matter, according to Eisenberg. Business owners can use artwork to cover up chipped paint, ditches or potholes in lawns and clean up the appearance of vacant buildings as canvasses for muralists.
“Revitalization operates at the level of resource allocation, which often means how changing the community looks,” Eisenberg said.
Part of this project includes the traffic-box wrap program, which covers the metal boxes that hold electrical machinery with art wraps as a way to prevent graffiti and make the sidewalks more colorful.
Riverdale Park invests $10,000 a year in the program, including compensating artists for their work, the cost of administrative tasks and maintaining the boxes.
Lt. Robert Turner, the commander of the Bureau of Patrol for the Riverdale Park Police, says that graffiti is “sporadic at best” in Riverdale Park, but removing any vandalism is a priority. The longer graffiti remains on public spaces, the more likely it is that more tagging will appear, Turner said.
The art wraps are vinyl, making it much easier to clean than a typical metal traffic box. Any standard alcohol-based cleaner will remove graffiti from the wraps, making it much faster and less expensive to remove. Furthermore, graffiti artists are less likely to vandalize something already covered in art.
“In general, people tend not to vandalize something that’s lovely,” Eisenberg said. “Even a tagger will stop and say ‘damn, that’s cool.’”
The public art initiative includes two signature programs: the traffic box wrap program and the rotating art program where six artists are selected each year to display their work in various sites within the community.
The HCDC puts out a “call for artists” and then chooses each piece through a panel of judges selected by the council. It includes local artists, community stakeholders, town representatives and HCDC members.
Each piece is placed on one of six concrete blocks placed in prominent areas around the town. According to Eisenberg, the HCDC recommended the spot according to the condition, visibility, feasibility of maintenance and surrounding art in the area. Most of the artwork is placed near well-traveled roads or in popular community areas such as parks.
The first round of art installations focused on the western side of town after town officials asked to make sure that part of the community was a priority.
“There are far less public assets that are pretty, as well as uplifting amenities (on the western side of town,)” said Eisenberg. “Further, the town administrator wanted to demonstrate that the town has a presence and a care for that part of our community.”
Adding more art to the community also helps Riverdale Park establish itself as part of Hyattsville’s quirky, art-focused community, encouraging more visitors from outside of the community.
“By having a lot of public art, we manifest public consciousness of ourselves as an arts and entertainment district-if there’s no public art anywhere, how would you know there’s an art and entertainment district in the area?” he said.
Binstock, who has donated two pieces during the program’s three-year run, believes that the goal of sparking creativity and interest in art is at the heart of the mission of the program. For him, public art is about educating the community in ways that are easy and accessible.
“I think that probably not a lot of people in Riverdale Park go to museums, they are very concerned with working and taking care of bills and being good community members, and that doesn’t include time to go see art,” he said. “But lots of people see something like (a Totem) that might not have intended to go see art, and they say ‘wow, I like that,’ and it becomes a piece of the neighborhood for them.”