How art challenges life

My husband started taking pictures of and picking up empty Newport cartons. Not just once. As in All.The. Time. And not just when he was alone. He would ask me to pull the car over and then spend the next 10 minutes walking back and picking up the few he saw on our drive home from work. They were in our car, in the kitchen, the garage. We started carrying plastic bags to carry them when we would take bike rides. He called it “The Newport Trail” and Gatherhaus covered the story. (Go over and read it real quick. It’s good. Then come back.)

He was convinced that highlighting this one specific item of trash would be a way to bring awareness to our neighborhood’s chronic littering problem. And it is a huge problem. On my street alone, I can fill a tall kitchen trash bag with the garbage I find just on one side. One half of one block fills one trash bag. I would call that a serious problem. More than the littering though are all the large pieces of furniture, toilets, cars, and mattresses that get dumped here. On our neighborhood Facebook page, people take photos of soiled mattresses and claim, “St. Mattress visited us again today!”

It’s out of control.

So out of control that by living here, it becomes apart of the landscape. Something you don’t notice or is so chronic that you fall into the mindset that you can’t really do anything about it anyway. It’s just the way it is. This is exactly the mentality that Paul set out to change.

Recently I went for a run and without even realizing it, halfway through I started scanning the ground. I passed up bags of garbage and a few of the highly noticeable teal Newport's and the awareness kicked in and guilt took over. With Paul highlighting the discarded Newport cartons, I unintentionally started looking for them. The catch is though, by looking for and noticing the Newport's, you became keenly aware of the other trash around. Once I started noticing the amount of trash on the ground, I was faced with a choice. Continue to actively ignore it, or do my part in helping eradicate this social and environmental problem.

Two things weighed heavy on my heart.

  1. Can picking up trash really affect and change a culture?

  2. Can one person really make a difference against such a vast and large issue?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point” addresses the first issue in a very poignant way. It is the idea of “The broken window” theory where when a neighborhood has a home with broken windows, it lowers the expectation and quality of life for its residence. When windows are broken, people have less respect for the space, so who cares if you break another one?

“Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, were Tipping points for violent crimes. Address the smaller issue, and you can change of the culture of the larger issue.” pg. 114

In chapter four he address the power of context wherein you start picking up trash and planting community gardens, (cleaning up the broken windows) the atmosphere of the culture shifts for the positive. According to Glawell and New York mayor Giuliani this theory proved to be true. So then the issue becomes, can we start a movement of cleaning up and shifting a violent culture of North Mpls by cleaning up the trash?

This begs the question, can one person create this kind of awareness and change with an art project? To that I am inspired by Tyree Guyton of “The Heidelberg Project”. One man who started an art movement on a street in Detroit by using the trash he found to create art. It started small, but over three decades later, it has become a key player in the culture of art and awareness.

Each movement must start somewhere.

Each movement must start with someone.

If we deeply and inherently believe that one person can make a difference, then it takes the courage of one to start speaking up. It is up to the rest of us to make up our minds and stand with them. When we stand together, then no one is alone. When we stand together, act together, speak up together, then change is possible.

I want a neighborhood that has respect for ourselves, each other and our streets. I want a neighborhood free of needles and condoms and broken glass.  I want a neighborhood safe from violent crimes. I want a neighborhood that believes we are better than what we currently are. I don’t want to be the city dumping ground anymore. I want our children to grow up with compassion for the environment. I want to believe that we can make a difference. I want to believe that art can inspire life and be the catalyst for change. If I want it, then I will stand with Paul and write about it. I will pick up trash. I will teach my children and the other kids on my block to pick up trash. I will carry garbage bags with me to continue picking up garbage wherever I go. I will raise my voice in this fight. I will do my part to raise awareness.

I want in on the movement.

I am inspired by my husband’s effort to call attention to an issue that is often overlooked. While the call to action to change the culture of garbage in North Minneapolis seems almost impossible, a change must start somewhere. It must start with someone, so why not start with Newport's.


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