As steel mills and other industry began shutting down across the Rust Belt in the recessions of the 1970s and 80s, a small group of Ohioans got together to try save their town and do more with less. Over the next 10 years the sides of dilapidated buildings in Steubenville, OH began to blossom with murals celebrating the city's history as an industrial town and --surprisingly-- the home of early film icon Dean Martin. Steubenville was soon re-christened the City of Murals and the artwork that decorated the once-depressed town brought in thousands of tourists (and much-needed tourist dollars).
My father Michael Wojczuk was the muralist for several of the first City of Murals projects and the idea of a city of murals awoke my imagination. I remember dad bringing home Steubenville t-shirts imprinted with steam pipes and the city's motto 'you gotta be tough!' which I wore every day to elementary school while feeling very tough indeed.
Today, when Ohio would seem to need the revitalization most, the City of Murals is being threatened with destruction. New development of the downtown has meant that old buildings and several murals have already been torn down.
It had been a long time since I'd thought about these murals, but I recently moved to San Francisco and marveling at the Mission district murals I started to wonder whether the City of Murals still existed as such. I contacted Youngstown, OH based photographer Tony Nicholas, whose recent projects have included intimate portraits of disused steel mills around Ohio. Tony was game, and the next weekend he visited Steubenville with his camera and started snapping pictures.
Many of the murals were fading - the reds in particular - and recent extremes in Ohio weather haven't helped. Other murals lie in rubble, like verdigris-covered Roman ruins. To some extent, weather and a shifting city scape are the hazards of public art. Just as a struggling economy helped birth the City of Murals tough times are encouraging people to rally in support of this part of Ohio history. Funds may be scarce, but in tough times public art helps communities maintain their unique identity and share that vision with the world. A small group of people are rallying to retain the City of Murals through audio tours, events and by raising funds for upkeep and preservation.
According to Tony, Ohioans weren't always so keen to remember their history. The term Rust Belt, which is now popular among younger residents, was once a term of distain for an area of the country (also including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and parts of Michigan) whose rusting factories were a painful reminder of a lost way of life. Now, Tony says, young Ohio artists are continuing to make art that celebrates the Rust Belt of the future--a place of bountiful creative energy. When the City of Murals project was first started, the murals preserved a piece ofSteubenville's past, now a new generation is trying to preserve them for the future.