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Art at the intersection

To hear Sharon Litwin interview Jeannie Paddison Tidy on WWNO radio, click here.

Jeannie Paddison Tidy with one of her art boxes, beautified utility boxes.

While it has become acceptable to regard some graffiti as a form of artistic expression, the fact is some graffiti is, well, graffiti. One New Orleanian has figured out how to get rid of that kind of visual blight with anything but blah gray paint.

New Orleanian Jeannie Paddison Tidy has renovated properties all through the Marigny, Bywater, Carrollton and Faubourg St. John. She made quite a name for herself nationally as she worked to clean up numerous blighted properties in all those neighborhoods. Soon she was receiving invitations from other cities desperate to do the same thing in their communities. The first came from developers trying to bring back the downtown area of historic Petersburg, Virginia, then Miami’s North Beach, and finally San Diego. That’s where she and her husband were when Hurricane Katrina hit.

In March 2006, Jeannie and Craig Tidy decided to return and help their daughter try to recover what was left of her Lakeview home. Living in a recreation vehicle parked in the daughter’s driveway, the Tidys became part of a tight group of returnees doing such basic things as painting street signs so the contractors could find where they were supposed to work. But Jeannie always had her own project in mind, one she had started in San Diego and one she thought could easily be implemented in New Orleans.

“I wanted to do this art box program, cleaning up those utility boxes on neutral grounds that are graffiti magnets,” she says. “I called the project the New Orleans Street Gallery.”

The offensive utility boxes are, in fact, the signal boxes controlling the lights at all traffic intersections. Knowing they were owned by the City of New Orleans, and anticipating she would need written permission to paint over them, Jeannie went to City Hall.

“The guy at Public Works said, 'You’ll never get approval in writing',” she recalls. “But he said, 'As long as the neighborhood doesn’t disapprove, we won’t bother you'.”

And, thus, in this most left-handed kind of way, one of New Orleans' more creative not-for-profit art projects was born.

It took a few years to get the New Orleans Street Gallery fully into gear. Now, almost three years into the actual neutral ground project, more than 30 of the 400-plus signal boxes have been completed.

“Every single one of them was grafittied when we started,” Jeannie recalls. “And not one has been grafittied since the artist did them.”

Working through the Arts Council of New Orleans and in conjunction with the neighborhood associations that must be consulted, each chosen artist receives a small cash stipend as well as the paint needed to put his or her design on a box that has been cleaned and primed by volunteers.

Jeannie has helped raise the funds for all the boxes already completed. And she wants to keep going. She encourages neighborhood associations all across the city to contact her if they are interested in removing this kind of blight in their areas. She’s committed to help with fundraising, box design, and identifying artists available to do the work. The entire process for making these decisions, she says, is now in place.

To contact Jeannie directly, go online to www.cvunola.org. There are at least 320 more opportunities to make New Orleans beautiful.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]