Historically, people have had a way of expressing their displeasure with government and society. I am not condoning such behavior, but it is a reality. We are seeing this today in England. In the United States, Philadelphia has had some problems in the streets, as well.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s many cities experienced riots in the streets and considerable property damage.
In Boston, in pre-existing venues, Summerthing was an amazing comprehensive program of mural art, music, culture and food. There is much that we could learn and replicate from Summerthing.
The Summerthing program started during Mayor Kevin White’s administration to bring 1,500 events per summer of music and murals to the neighborhoods of Boston (The Mayor’s intentions were to keep the city quiet and not have the kind of riots they were having all over the country.).
Under the direction of the innovative state legislator, Katherine D. Kane who enlisted community cooperation and participation, and artist Adele Seronde, (She was the daughter of Christian Herter, Secretary of State for President Truman.) this summer festival, started with murals in the various Boston neighborhoods and expanded to offer music and dance.
Referred to by some as a “pact of mutual convenience,” Summerthing led to the creation of militant black murals in the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston in 1968 and 1969. In the first two years of the program, half of the murals (approximately thirty-five) were painted in black neighborhoods. At its peak in 1970, Summerthing had an operating budget of $425,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and city funds.
A quarter of its budget came from private donors, most likely through art-minded contacts of Ms. Seronde. Monies were channeled through the Boston Foundation, and not only murals, but also other community related projects including installation of playgrounds and festivals, were funded. In all, the Boston Foundation funded all of the 1500 events and projects.
As Summerthing expanded from murals to music brought to the neighborhoods of Boston, Summerthing became very popular with the citizens. There were several summers of concerts in the parks featuring both major acts as well as local talent, all served up at sundown on “stagemobiles” (A fancy name for “retired” UPS truck/vans.) with professional sound and lighting. People would bring blankets, coolers, and folding chairs to see the bands, but would connect with neighbors and feel a sense of community…the true aim of the Summerthing program. It was a great vibe…very democratic and inclusive.
Since I was part of team that was considering a similar program for downtown Washington D. C. (Pennsylvania Avenue, F Street Mall and Metro Square), I was given a police escorted tour with Ms. Seronde. On this particular evening, I saw the African Dance Ensemble performed on a portable stage on a baseball diamond in the Roxbury Public Housing Projects for thousands of proud and enthusiastic attendees. Late in the evening, after visiting the North End Italian neighborhood for some arias and an Irish men’s choir, we were escorted to the rear of the stage in the Boston Common for the Beach Boys Concert. There was an incredible sea of humanity picnicking and enjoying this warm evening. (As it turned out, they needed a back stage photographer for the Beach Boys concert on the Boston Commons, so I volunteered.)
The FREE concerts were nothing short of amazing: The Byrds played at Ringer Playground (joined onstage by Bo Diddly, of all people.) There was a “B.B., Bo, and Berry” concert there as well. The Association played at Smith Field once. Poco and Arlo Guthrie performed together at The Rose Garden. . James Taylor played for free in a park during a week when he was playing for the paying customers elsewhere in Boston.
In one summer, rock music resounded in 18 concerts at Harvard Stadium, including: The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Supremes. B. B. King, James Cotton Blues Band, Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, Voices of East Harlem, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ramsey Lewis, Percy Mayfield, Jose Feliciano and Janis Joplin (Her last concert.) all played to Summerthing crowds, for FREE!!
At the same time, the neighborhood performances were just as powerful. I witnessed over 1,000 residents of the North End crowded around the “stagemobile” in the street to hear Italian arias. Likewise, in the Irish neighborhood, there were more than 3,000 listening to the Irish Men’s A Capella” Choir. They were powerful and amazing. All the men came from the Irish neighborhoods, but had never been heard by their own community.
What are the takeaways from Summerthing?
First, every city has the venues to hold Summerthing. There are existing sites for mural art, cultural festival presentations, and music at all scales (from the neighborhood to the stage). The public and private sectors need to use these venues for the betterment of their communities.
Secondly, murals are a great means of expression, means of appreciating cultural differences of various ethnic groups and adding to the cultural content of any neighborhood, community and city.
Thirdly, the activities of the events of Summerthing brought people together. Through these events people felt better about themselves, each other and their community.
Fourth, “taking” the musical offerings to the people is what made Summerthing successful. In the beginning of the summer, the events were tailored to the neighborhood. For example, the African Dance Ensemble was presented in Roxbury. As the summer was half over, more of the events were presented cross-culturally. This helped to bring people of different ethnicities together and lower the barriers.
Fifth, to be successful, it is not necessary to have the big name artists or acts. (Mayor White did not want to take a chance, so he went all the way.) However, local artists did the murals and there were many more “no name” acts performing in the neighborhoods that were the backbone of Summerthing.
Sixth, with the capital investment already in place, the primary ingredients include: vision, organization, imagination in programming and the will to just do it.
Finally, the operating capital can be scaled to the capacity of the organization. In the case of Boston, the walls for the murals already existed. They just needed to be selected. Summerthing worked with UPS to be a sponsor and donate their old “trucks.” A lot of the sound, stage and lighting equipment came from existing sources, including the school district.
Having had the pleasure of experiencing Summerthing first hand, I would encourage all of us to “just do it” and bring our own version of Summerthing to our projects and communities. Enjoy!!
1) Ryan Tedeer of OneRepublic at Alice’s Summerthing 2011, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco by Erum Karim (flickr CC)
2) Alice’s Summerthing 2010, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco by Kwong Yee Cheng (Flickr CC)