Mosaic wall artfully, joyfully shares a neighborhood’s history


Have you ever stopped to look — really look — at a public work of art that you’ve passed dozens of times with only a passing glance or quickly forgotten curiosity? I did last week, and it was a magical experience to discover the beauty and positive community spirit of the Wall of Welcome in the Crestview/Brentwood neighborhood of central Austin.


Artist and neighborhood resident Jean Graham dreamed up, in 2003, the idea to make a community art project out of an existing, 120-foot-long wall at Crestview Shopping Center along Woodrow Avenue. She presented the idea to the neighborhood residents, who enthusiastically responded by throwing an annual fundraising festival and creating a nonprofit organization to support the project.


For the next 5 years, Jean created mosaic scenes to illustrate 50 years of the neighborhood’s history: its treeless, cotton-field beginnings, modest ranch homes with new-planted trees, neighborhood schools and iconic local businesses, and the people who’ve populated the neighborhood over the past half-century.


It’s an incredible work of art. Driving by you get a colorful flash of it — the wall is a block long, after all. But you must walk along the wall to really appreciate its beauty and meaning.


You want to run your hands across it to feel its depth and texture.


Here’s a section featuring neighborhood businesses, including an old drive-in theater, long gone; Top Notch drive-in hamburger joint, featured in Dazed and Confused and still open today; and the original Threadgill’s, a gas station-turned-restaurant with live music, where Janis Joplin got her start.


Threadgill’s


The detail in each scene is extraordinary, like the oater playing at the drive-in theater.


Brentwood Elementary School


A juggler on a unicycle pedals past a sycamore tree in which a flock of green parrots roosts. This scene reminds me of the day in Brentwood Park, years ago, when a parrot flock soared right over my head, an improbable flash of emerald green that momentarily transported me to a tropical rain forest. (Decades ago, pet monk parakeets escaped captivity and have naturalized in large colonies throughout Austin.)


Domino the Pig, a petting zoo escapee that once roamed neighborhood arroyos, is commemorated here wearing a crown of trees and houses representing the community.


Community participation was instrumental in creating the wall. Long-time residents shared photographs from the neighborhood’s early years, and Jean duplicated a number of those images in the mosaic. (Read more about the making of the Wall of Welcome here.)


Moon-like circles engraved with snippets of neighborhood history appear along the length of the wall, making it educational as well as celebratory and beautiful.


Floating in a lilac ribbon across Jean’s mosaic is a representation of the “violet crown,” the poetic name given by settlers to the soft haze on Austin’s western hills at sunset. (Austin is still known as the City of the Violet Crown.) The treeless former fields of Crestview and Brentwood afforded views of the hills and that famed violet crown — at least until the newly planted trees grew up.


Closer inspection reveals that the wall’s violet crown is composed of suns, flowers, animals, and ribbons, many etched with the names of residents and even brief quotes about the neighborhood. “Hollis Ponder is how I found out my dog likes beer!” reads one (I’d love to know the story behind this). “It’s like a little town in the middle of a big city!” reads another.


Running in a band across the top of the wall and clustered at the left end are square tiles made by neighborhood residents, and these are just as intriguing as the main design. Jean held workshops to teach neighbors how to make personalized tiles of their own designs. For a $25 donation, which helped fund the wall, residents could make their own tiles and see them become part of the neighborhood history memorialized on the wall.


They are snapshots of memory that convey a sense of place, showing gardens…


…homes…


…children and dogs playing…


…roots growing deep…


…and gardeners tending plants and wildlife.


Beloved local businesses are represented too.


We ate here last night — yum!


I’ve bought many cans of paint at Arrow Paint.


My daughter likes that Bud, the family dog, got a spot on this tile, forever enjoying a ride in the car.


I like this one, a parade scene from Austin’s very 1st First Night celebration in 2005, because my family was part of that parade. We were one of the bread throwers at the back of the procession who tossed loaves of handmade bread into the crowd. Our invitation to join the parade came with a loaf of bread that mysteriously appeared on our doorstep one morning in December, and which we later learned was left for us by a friend in the neighborhood. The point of the bread is all still a bit mystifying, but we had a blast.


I’m also deeply curious about the tile at right. It looks like a killer armadillo taking down a cat in a Randall’s grocery parking lot. Have the police been called to break it up? If someone knows the story behind this tile, please share!


I’ve shown only a tiny sampling of the neighbor-made tiles, and each one is worthy of inspection as they weave a dynamic story of the neighborhood. I think you could walk the wall many times and see something new on each visit.


The residents of Crestview and Brentwood must surely love their Wall of Welcome. Imagine if each neighborhood in Austin had its own story commemorated through art. How wonderful that would be.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Garden mementos on the windowsill


I have a nice view of the back patio through my office window, where I spend most of my time when I’m at home. But I’d never thought to decorate the windowsill until I visited designer/author Rebecca Sweet’s garden last summer. In her “chick shack,” a charming shed-to-office conversion, Rebecca displays sentimental collections and mementos, and I loved the personal touch these objects added to the room and to the view.


When I got home I took a new look at my office windowsill, which was blocked by haphazard furniture placement, and realized I could open up the view by shoving over my drafting table and placing a storage ottoman under the window instead. Now I was free to place a few meaningful objects on the sill.


I’m not a natural stylist like Rebecca, but no matter. The fun of it, for me, is making a collection that is meaningful: reminders of vacations, family, and friends, objects that connect to the garden on the other side of the glass. It’s easy to change around on a whim or as you acquire something new.

My current windowsill arrangement includes, from left to right, a zebra plant in an Esther pot that I bought at Flora Grubb in San Francisco last summer; a wooden wren made in New England that was a gift from my in-laws in honor of my daughter, whose middle name is Wren; a metal starfish just because; a succulent candle in a terracotta pot; a Keep Austin Weird tile from South Austin Gallery; a sweet, little pot from the Wildflower Center that my friend Dee Nash gave me when she visited recently, into which I popped a tillandsia; and a pot I bought at Spruce to hold a collection of Oklahoma rose rocks, another gift from Dee six years ago when she came to Austin for the first Garden Bloggers Fling. I was born in Oklahoma, and although I only lived there as a baby before my parents moved us to South Carolina, where I grew up, we used to drive “home” to Oklahoma every summer to visit family. So these rocks speak to me of family and barefoot childhood summers on red-dirt roads.

So do you keep any mementos or garden decor on your office windowsill? If so, I hope you’ll share a description or a link to a photo!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Guest post: Graveside mementos at Austin Memorial Park in danger of being prohibited

Revolutionary War veteran’s tombstone in Concord, MA

Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring our veterans, but it’s an appropriate time for remembering our loved ones as well — visiting their graves, placing tokens of remembrance there, sitting for a little while on a graveside bench.

I used to live across the street from Austin Memorial Park, a lovely, public cemetery with tree-lined lanes and many graves personalized with mementos like wind chimes, benches, flags, pinwheels, birdhouses, tended gardens of shrubs and flowers, and even a flock of plastic flamingos, which once brightened the grave of a friend of mine whose wife died unexpectedly. She loved flamingos.

Although Austin takes pride in keeping things weird, in allowing, even celebrating, personal expression, someone somewhere has apparently had their good-taste button pushed and complained to the city about such items in the cemetery. Now the City of Austin is proposing prohibiting (or enforcing what it says are long-standing rules against) personal graveside expressions.

For Tina Huckabee, my former neighbor and a fellow blogger at My Gardener Says…, this issue is more than just a question of aesthetics or whether Austin is losing its weirdness. It’s deeply personal. Her daughter, Shoshana, who died at the age of 13, is buried at Austin Memorial Park, and Tina has long tended a neat garden of purple coneflowers, Shoshana’s favorite flower, on her grave. Now she’s being told that the garden must be removed, and probably as well the stones of remembrance that visitors have left on her daughter’s tombstone. This strikes me as a second loss that Tina — and other bereaved families — should not have to bear, all for the sake of a homogeneous, de-personalized look in a cemetery where plots are privately owned and where, for decades, no enforcement against personal mementos has been done. City of Austin, where is your heart?

Tina wrote about the issue on her blog yesterday, and I asked if she would like to guest post here in order to help get the word out. Although the city is pushing through a resolution against mementos at AMP, they have posted a survey for public input on the proposed rules, which will be up through tonight and maybe tomorrow (May 26th). I urge you to take 10 or 15 minutes and fill out the online survey and let your voice be heard. Click here for the cemetery survey.

Guest Post by Tina Huckabee

Some people find this offensive.

These are the graves of my daughter, Shoshana, and my father-in-law, Russell. I planted a little garden atop Shoshana’s grave in the year after she died (2006) because I didn’t like the tracks the lawnmowers left on her grave. I called (at least twice) and asked permission from Austin Memorial Park officials to plant the garden. I never received a reply. So, I planted. I’ve tended that grave garden since. I chose the plants for sentimental reasons and also because the plants are either native to Austin or are drought tolerant perennials. I thought I was doing a good thing.

Russell’s grave is mulched and ready for planting, but no garden exists. My sister-in-law Sharon and I were discussing what to plant on Russell’s grave when, in September, quite by accident, a volunteer with the synagogue where I’m a member, mentioned to my husband that everything on Shoshana’s grave would need to be removed. On Sunday, September 8, I emailed Austin Memorial Park and was consequently forwarded a long list of “you can’t do this” rules. At that time, we were told the rules had been in force since 2006, but since then, city officials have suggested the rules have been in effect since the 1970s. What everyone agrees with, though, is that the rules have never been enforced and that those who have buried loved ones have never been informed of those rules.

After Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman contacted Sharon, myself and others, he wrote several articles about the kerfuffle. A bit of public outcry ensued, and Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) delayed the scraping of the graves until November. During a City Council meeting on October 17, several council members agreed to place a moratorium on any action until “more nuanced rules” could be set in place. The Austin city council gave PARD six months to develop rules, utilizing citizen input.

On October 24, Austin PARD held a cemetery stakeholders meeting where this issue was allotted a few minutes as the last item on the agenda. Involving myself in this issue, I visualized a process where city officials and concerned citizens would work together to develop cemetery rules. The Bureaucrat in charge of Austin Memorial Park (and the meeting) disabused me of that idea at that time. The meeting was adversarial from the start. Two police officers were posted in the back of the room. Really? For a general public meeting? I guess citizens who have loved ones buried at Austin Memorial Park are a particularly scary bunch. I don’t think there was anyone under 40 at that meeting. I was disgusted at the attitude displayed by The Bureaucrat in charge. He was dismissive and rude to anyone who disagreed with him. When asked a direct question, he circumvented the answer. Several people asked the same simple question, When is our next meeting/where do we go from here?, because he never answered it. Apparently, he has been adversarial for years. This was my first experience with this issue and the players involved. Attendees filmed and recorded the meeting — I remember thinking how odd that was, but by the end of the meeting, I understood. Having the police officers at the meeting was a clear message: it was meant to intimidate the citizens. After that meeting and regardless of the City Council’s moratorium, I had no confidence that PARD was going to listen to input from citizens which didn’t jibe with what they had already decided to do.

Except for general email updates (usually only after our request for information), there has been essentially no action toward involving the public in discourse. From the beginning, the process was behind a wall of city bureaucracy. There was no action and little communication until toward the end of the six-month moratorium and in March 2014, the city hired a company to “facilitate” discussion. On April 29, the first formal movement to involve citizen input was announced. As mentioned, I envisioned a process in which I, along with other stakeholders, would partner with city officials in regular, monthly meetings and work toward developing guidelines, appropriate and fair to all. Instead, a generic online survey, made available May 1 and which closes May 27, is all the input there will be. There are two public meetings scheduled over the next few weeks: one is set for June 5 to present the final rules and one on June 18 to finalize those rules. There is no interim meeting to amend any concerns between the presentation and the finalization of the proposed cemetery rules. After nine months, the process will be pushed through over a two-week period with little time for genuine public participation. My initial impressions from that original October meeting were spot on.

There are already some who have exhumed their loved ones’ remains and others who will be doing so because they do not believe the city of Austin and PARD are respectful and understanding of cemetery owners.

There are so many issues with this process that it’s hard to know where to begin.

1) My family owns our grave sites; the city of Austin does not own them. Austin Memorial Park is a public/private entity. I don’t believe that I can do anything I want with my private property, regardless of community standards. But those graves are owned by individuals, and as long as what I place there is not profane, dangerous, and is maintained by myself (or my delegates) and I don’t expect the city employees to [do] maintenance [on] the graves, I should be able to place private memorials.

2) There are clear and important cultural differences in how a cemetery is perceived. Apparently, there were complaints from visitors who walk through Austin Memorial Park (but don’t have loved ones buried there), which may have been the original impetus of the rules implementation. Some people believe that a cemetery should be nothing but grass and gravestones and that there should be little, if any, personal mementos on graves. If you read about or visit Mexican or European graveyards, you’ll find a very different aesthetic. In Jewish tradition, we place rocks on graves when we visit — is that going to end at Austin Memorial Park because someone doesn’t think that’s okay? For those who celebrate Dio de los Muertos, will they no longer be allowed to place items important to their loved ones on their graves? The placing of flags on veterans’ graves is a violation of the proposed rules. Will it become a thing of the past to place flags on the graves of veterans?


If you don’t like gardens or toys placed on graves (private property), that doesn’t mean that others agree with you or that you have the right to force your aesthetics. There are many sweet mementos around this beautiful cemetery.

A few:

And there are many regionally appropriate perennials which would be removed.

3) Aesthetics aside, should the city of Austin, which touts itself as a leader in “green initiatives” be planting grass? And watering that grass with our impending water shortages? And mowing the grass, thus adding more fossil fuels to our atmosphere and ozone? What if everyone at Austin Memorial decided to do what I did and plant a xeric, pollinator-friendly garden? Wouldn’t that actually reduce maintenance? Isn’t that what the city is promoting for our home landscapes, and couldn’t that idea be extended to a large swath of public/private land? It seems to me that one set of goals in Austin government is deeply conflicted with another.

4) I do believe in rules — I’m quite the rule follower, actually. I agree that anything which could realistically cause harm to a worker should be removed. Items not placed directly on graves, but left in common city ground and inappropriately or dangerously placed, should be removed. But one of the examples of banned items are benches. The city of Austin does not place benches in the cemetery, a place where people go to rest and contemplate. Therefore many cemetery stakeholders have supplied their own benches. I agree that if a bench (or anything else) is dilapidated, dangerous, or in the way of workers enough to cause problems, the city has the right to remove it. But safe, well-maintained benches are an asset to the cemetery, and the rules should allow benches. I am sympathetic with the employees of Austin Memorial Park. It’s their job to remove unsafe and long-forgotten items. Working around individual graves isn’t the easiest task, either. However, Austin Memorial Park isn’t a general use park; it is a place where the people of Austin visit and honor those important in their lives who have died.

It is sacred ground.

5) In Ken Herman’s article in the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday, May 24, the PARD official mentions how much money has been spent to bring the process to this point. Your tax dollars paid for the “facilitator,” and this waste of money could and should have been avoided. A once-per-month meeting, consisting of a panel of city employees and concerned citizens, would have been more fitting for this sensitive issue. That is what I thought would happen. Silly me.

Perhaps a better use of those tax dollars could have been to pay PARD employees to pick up trash along the green-space of our filthy roadways. (Has anyone else noticed how dirty Austin roadways are?) Or, maybe they should be employed to remove the bastard cabbage (and other invasive plants) which are infesting our green spaces and replace those invasives with our beautiful, native wildflowers. Lady Bird must be turning over in her grave. (Glad she’s not buried at Austin Memorial Park.)

Or, maybe they could be paid to fix the wonky fence around Austin Memorial Park.


There’s a thought!

6) Why has this taken so long? PARD wasted the six-month moratorium and now wants to cram proposed rules through within the next three weeks.

I know this is a rant. I’ve been stewing about this all week, and I’ve believed from the beginning that PARD was not serious about working with citizens to develop “nuanced rules.” I hoped to partner with city officials in regular, monthly meetings to develop guidelines which were appropriate, fair and reasonable. But from the beginning, city bureaucrats shrouded the process and blockaded true public input.

If you want Austin to maintain some semblance of a creative, richly diverse community which promotes individuality, please lend your voice by answering the online survey at:

http://speakupaustin.org/surveys/city-of-austin-cemeteries

Many, many thanks to Ken Herman for his perseverance with this issue.


Sleep well, Shoshana and Russell.

Originally posted by Tina Huckabee at My Gardener Says…, under the title “Only the Dead Listen,” on May 24, 2014.

Update June 11, 2014: The City of Austin has relaxed the proposed rules against mementos and graveside gardens, but the compromise isn’t perfect. Meanwhile, a new city survey about the proposals is up but only until Friday. If this issue matters to you, please take a few minutes to complete this new survey. For more information about the revised rules, read Tina Huckabee’s analysis at My Gardener Says….

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.