Park City Black Lives Matter mural: Is this Portland, or a sign of a welcoming city?
Editor’s note: Given the intense debate surrounding the murals, The Park Record included only the initials of people who wrote correspondences to City Hall out of concern that publishing their full names could invite harassment.
K.H. fell asleep in Park City on the night of Independence Day, apparently not realizing what had been occurring along Main Street through much of the day as the community marked the holiday.
The annual parade from Main Street to City Park had been canceled out of concern for the further spread of the novel coronavirus. The fireworks, too, had been canceled. City Hall instead turned Main Street into a pedestrian zone for the Fourth of July weekend. Leaders wanted to build on the successes of the Sunday pedestrian days that debuted in 2020, a part of the effort to reignite sales on the shopping, dining and entertainment strip after worries about the coronavirus forced an early end to the ski season and depressed sales in the spring and early summer.
Over the Independence Day weekend, with little prior publicity, City Hall provided the Main Street blacktop as a canvas for artists to create a series of giant murals with social justice themes. Few on Main Street or throughout wider Park City were aware the murals would be created, and the works, including one with a “Black Lives Matter” message that stretched the length of a football field, immediately became a flash point.
The next day, at 2:37 p.m. on July 5, K.H. was on a computer or mobile device typing a correspondence to the Park City Council. Sent to a general address for the City Council, K.H.’s message expressed dismay with the murals, telling the elected officials of her disappointment in the decision to “politicize Main Street” and admonishing them that they “represent ALL Parkites not just the ones that are currently shouting the loudest.” It was as if Park City had suddenly transformed itself into a place where racial tensions were running especially high, the message implied.
“I went to sleep Saturday night in Park City and I woke up Sunday morning in Portland, Oregon . . . Really? Defacing Main Street? If the council felt so strongly that they wanted political murals, then why didn’t they have the artists paint the council member’s driveways? It would be on private property and they are free to espouse any view all they want. But on public property? Where is any opposing view? And boy, all this was done pretty quietly,” the message from K.H. said.
It was several days later when C.B. was also online and putting words on the screen in a message that was sent to the general City Council address at 5:47 p.m. on July 8, after Park City had already been thrust into a polarizing debate about the murals. The Black Lives Matter mural on the street “helps people of color” in the region, C.B. had been told, she said in the message, describing the mural as “giving them hope and a reason to come visit Park City.” The mural was a “catalyst for many important, needed, and heart felt conversations,” she wrote.
“This mural is a sign to everyone that Park City is a community that cares about diversity, all types of diversity. It says our city is a safe space and welcomes all. We need this mural to be permanent,” C.B. wrote. “We have employees of all races that have expressed the overwhelming feeling of safety and hope, seeing this every day.”
The messages to the elected officials from K.H. and C.B. are two of a cache of more than 120 correspondences that City Hall released in response to a Park Record request, filed under state open-records laws, for the written input regarding the murals. The stack of correspondences illustrates the extraordinary range of opinions about the murals and highlights the divisiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement even in a community that has long been proud of its leftist leanings and its welcoming attitudes as an internationally recognized tourism destination.
The number of messages that were in clear opposition to the murals, or, in some cases, in opposition to the process that led to their creation, outstripped those that were sent in support. Both sides broached numerous topics. The people who supported the murals mentioned what they see as a need for conversations about diversity, said the murals represent the values of the people of Park City and claimed the artworks created a sense of pride in the community. Those who were opposed, though, saw the murals as divisive and argued the works were a questionable use of taxpayer monies in a difficult economic time. The Black Lives Matter movement itself drew the ire of some of those who sent correspondences.
“They were high on the colorful scale, for sure,” Mayor Andy Beerman said in an interview as he summarized the correspondences.
A canvas of asphalt
Park City leaders canceled the annual Independence Day parade and festivities, typically attracting one of the largest crowds of the year to Main Street, in the week-plus prior to the Fourth of July and amid the continued concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. But City Hall, businesses on Main Street and tourism boosters wanted to salvage a solid weekend during what had been by then a difficult summer for sales. The Fourth of July was a Saturday, and leaders extended the weekly Sunday pedestrian days on Main Street to include Saturday that weekend as well. There were people milling about, shopping, dining and looking for a way to enjoy, if not celebrate, the holiday.
Amid the crowd, there were crews with buckets of paint and paint rollers creating murals on the Main Street asphalt, something that had not been widely publicized prior to the day even with it occurring on Park City’s most famous street and in a location where City Hall heavily regulates the aesthetics.
The murals, each with a social justice theme, were giant. One of them garnered immediate attention. A work by Vineyard artist Aljay Fuimaono ran 300 feet in length on a prominent section of Main Street. It was a Black Lives Matter mural, consisting of just those three words in lettering 14 feet tall. The ‘i’ in the word “Lives” was painted as a clenched fist symbol used by the Black Power movement. Other murals created on the street that day read “Solidarity,” “Peace, Unity, Love” and “Justicia Para Todos,” the Spanish words that translate to “Justice for all.” As the work continued, Fuimaono said it was “good to show that Park City stands with this message, stands with Black Lives Matter.”
It was the most visible recognition in the community of the Black Lives Matter movement since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. There had been a demonstration at Park City High School that drew approximately 300 people, as well as a smaller one at the Olympic Welcome Plaza, but neither garnered the visibility of the Main Street murals with thousands of people walking or driving the street in a city where the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 estimated just 1.7% of the population was Black.
There were some in the Fourth of July crowd who were intrigued by the crews up and down Main Street as they applied the paint, but the holiday revelers more appeared to be on the street to celebrate the day, seeming to only pause briefly to watch the work or chat with Fuimaono or the others creating the murals. Many seemed supportive of the messages, epitomizing Park City’s reputation as one of Utah’s few reliably left-leaning communities after the decades of newcomers from places like California and New York. It is a place where social equity is a City Hall critical priority, and the murals were, at some level, attempting to advance those efforts. Others, though, were clearly disgusted as they walked by, some muttering under their breath. By the time dusk arrived, it was evident the murals, particularly the Black Lives Matter work, had created an unexpected fissure in Park City, and one that would extend well beyond the holiday.
City Hall quickly said it provided a grant valued at approximately $15,000 to the Arts Council Park City and Summit County for the murals and the management of the work. The grant itself had not been heavily debated in the community in the period before Independence Day. The leader of the group that represents businesses along Main Street, the Historic Park City Alliance, later indicated the organization had essentially been blindsided by the murals. The acknowledgment that City Hall expended taxpayer monies was, to many, another surprise, especially amid worries about the impact of the downturn on municipal finances.
The murals were on Main Street for just a matter of days before, in the overnight hours of the Tuesday into Wednesday after the holiday weekend, a vandal or vandals targeted them. The act of vandalism was especially aimed at the Black Lives Matter mural. Gray paint was used to cover the word “Black.” The clenched fist that stood for the letter ‘i’ in the word “Lives” was also covered, essentially leaving the mural saying “Lives Matter.” The “Peace, Unity, Love” mural was also vandalized while the one reading “Justicia Para Todos” was left undamaged. The Park City Police Department continues to investigate the case. It immediately was the most notorious act of vandalism along Main Street in nearly seven years, since a California man in late 2013 shattered the glass protecting an artwork created by the famed graffiti artist Banksy and spray-painted over the image of a kneeling angel. The man unsuccessfully attempted to shatter the glass protecting another Banksy piece nearby.
“Bias and systemic racism exist in our community. If we wish to overcome these, we must show courage to look inward, educate ourselves, and hold those around us accountable for their actions, and inaction,” the mayor said in a statement released when the social justice works were defaced. “Painting over the Main Street murals last night was an act of petty vandalism and now becomes part of Park City’s history. We will use this event to further our community dialogue about social inequities.”
The artist Fuimaono returned to Main Street the weekend after the vandalism to repair the mural, repainting the vandalized lettering so the mural again read “Black Lives Matter.” The crew also modified the mural to feature Black and white holding hands rather than the clenched fist symbol that previously represented the letter ‘i.’ The artist added the text of a poem based on his personal story that he wrote after the act of vandalism. One of the poem’s lines read: “We need to Unite as a country and fix our Broken System.”
“I’m kind of happy it happened. I am. Because then I get to come back and share a message, a positive message, a message of peace, a message of unity,” Fuimaono said in an interview as the repairs were made, adding, “We just stand behind the message behind the actual phrase of, you know, Black Lives Matter, which is racial equity.”
‘Let’s take to the street’
J.F. at around 8 p.m. on July 8 crafted a subject line of an email to the general mailbox for the City Council that made her opinion of the murals known even before one of the elected officials would have opened the message. “I love the street murals. I support the street murals,” it read.
J.F.’s message about the artworks that were created on Main Street days earlier, and then vandalized, said she supported the use of taxpayer funds for the murals. She thanked the elected officials for their service and said, “in solidarity, let’s take the baton and run.”
“It is our responsibility and our duty to amplify voices for justice. For this community to be silent is to condone. Hold the mic and turn it up,” J.F. said in the message. “Like it or not, when white people take to the streets, change might actually occur. Let’s take to the street and utilize our Main Street. With my tax dollars and my resources, I approve the platform to elevate these causes. I support this street art and the message it shares.”
J.F.’s words seem to crystallize an ardent progressiveness so many Parkites hold dear, brought with them from elsewhere when they moved to intensely conservative Utah. Park City leaders for decades have attempted to advance social justice, as well as some variance of what is now known as City Hall’s social equity platform, pursuing the ideals underpinning social equity long before the term became broadly used in the community and nationally. As Park City began to grow at a sharp clip in the 1980s, followed by an outright population boom in the 1990s, officials crafted policies and programs designed to create a welcoming community. The newcomers were primarily white people from outside of Utah, but there was also a large number of Latinos who arrived in Park City at about the same time, attracted to the plentiful employment opportunities in the tourism industry and the construction field.
City Hall, religious institutions like St. Mary’s Catholic Church and not-for-profit organizations during the early days of the growth were seen as being at the forefront of a changing community. The municipal government expanded the availability of Spanish-language materials and, crucially, pursued a housing program as numerous rank-and-file workers, even in the early 1990s, became priced out of Park City’s resort-driven real estate market.
Over the course of three decades, Park City’s various elected officials refined the housing programs and other efforts toward inclusiveness, eventually assembling them into the overarching ideal of social equity. There was especially momentum in the years after the financial crisis and resulting recession a decade ago, when there was concern that many in Park City did not share in the economic fruits of the community’s strong exit from the downturn. The City Council later elevated social equity — encompassing identities like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and generation — to be one of the municipal government’s critical priorities, alongside energy, housing and transportation. Social equity, then, permeates through the decision-making processes across City Hall departments.
With a Fourth of July that would be celebrated so differently than before approaching, Park City officials were continuing to consider ideas for the day even into the middle of June, when the plans ordinarily would already be largely finalized. The City Council on June 18 received a communication from Sarah Pearce, one of the deputy Park City managers, outlining efforts addressing what were described as racial inequities and bias. The communication noted the possibility of the municipal government “Supporting Artists of Color and Inclusive Messaging,” perhaps with unspecified “community art projects during Car Free Sundays on Main Street that allow community members and visitors to express their hope and frustrations.”
There was limited additional information publicized before the holiday, leaving the masses unaware of the plans for the large murals and unprepared for the controversy the works would stir. The murals soon faded from the Main Street asphalt and were largely unrecognizable by six weeks after Independence Day. The fervor of the messages to the elected officials shows the impact would be lasting regardless of how long the murals remained visible.
Three hours before J.F. sent her July 8 email to City Hall, D.O. was finishing his own message to the city councilors, one that spoke of his “distaste” for the Black Lives Matter mural on Main Street. There was no forum, or a public vote, before the decision was made, he said, contending Main Street is not the location for a mural like the one that was created on July 4. Main Street, he said, “is a place for everyone, and not everyone wants to constantly have Black Lives Matter thrown in their faces.” Salt Lake City would have been a better location, he indicated, wondering about the municipal process that allowed the artworks in a spot that is so tightly regulated.
“Who the hell approved this??? I vote for this to be removed immediately and that we find other ways as a community to support causes of equality. Mayor Beerman overstepped in a huge way here if he approved this without it going to a community vote. It takes TWO YEARS to get a new home build approved in Old Town, yet a gigantic political message down the middle of Main Street just happens overnight?” D.O. said in the message. “I call DOUBLE STANDARD. If this is allowed, then how about we open up Main Street to ‘murals’ from anyone that wants to advertise their cause? We will end up looking like a graffiti district in Miami. This is a slippery slope and you all know it.”
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City Hall in December posted strong sales-tax numbers, powering past projections and nearly equaling the figure from the same month in the previous year, as Park City continued to beat expectations amid the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.