Mending Walls

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Posted February 5, 2009 in Feature Story

On a recent, blessedly rain-free Sunday afternoon, 49-year-old Riverside artist Ken Stansbury climbs down from a scaffold and lights a cigarette as he describes the mural he has been laboring steadily on for weeks.

 

“Right there,” he says, pointing to an area on the 17-foot-by-43-foot mural on the wall of the Doris Perez Interpreting business at 4035 Market Street, “is Central Hill, where Riverside Cemetery is located. Over here is the 91 Freeway. And right here is Central Middle School.”

 

While Central Hill is readily apparent in the mural, the freeway and the middle school are not: The scene depicts a time in Riverside’s history before they were built. In fact, nothing in the painting ever existed, at least not literally. Yes, the Riverside of the 1920s was, as the mural shows, a rolling sea of citrus trees and irrigation lanes. But the trees were never so vividly green as in the painting; the skies were never so brilliantly blue. 

 

That’s at least part of the point of the painting—the second of three giant murals Stansbury has been commissioned to complete. Seeking to stamp Riverside’s brand on walls throughout the city, the artist chose to do the murals in the iconic style of fruit-crate label art—a form of commercial advertising hugely popular at the turn of the last century. The labels typically depicted images of America as an agricultural Utopia—rollicking vistas of orchards and fields thriving in glorious sunlight. 

 

But another big point to the murals—one largely unspoken, but front-and-center in the minds of anyone who follows Riverside politics—is that they represent a new day of civic harmony at City Hall. As in Washington, D.C., Riverside has undergone a palace revolution of sorts with the passing last year of a divisive old guard and the advent of a new one. Nothing symbolizes that shift more than the fact that City Hall, through the Riverside Downtown Partnership, chose Stansbury to paint the murals. 

 

That’s because the last time city officials officially looked to Stansbury, it was to sue the pants off him.

 

City Hall spent a good chunk of this decade pursuing a policy of seizing private property from its citizens and turning it over to commercial developers. From 2004 to 2006, the Riverside Redevelopment Agency filed at least 18 eminent-domain lawsuits against property owners, with the goal of seeing the land converted into enterprises—condos, restaurants, retail venues, etc.—that might generate more tax revenue for the city. 

 

Standing in the way of the city’s plans was Ken Stansbury. Declaring eminent domain no less than “tyranny under the gun,” Stansbury organized a group of downtown property owners to oppose the policy, and, with a grassroots group called Riversiders for Property Rights began collecting signatures in October 2005 to put an anti-eminent-domain initiative before city voters. A month later, City Hall sued both Stansbury and Riversiders, claiming the proposed initiative conflicted with state law. 

 

“It was like a giant chess game,” Stansbury recalls. “When we started gathering signatures, I remember telling my friend Rob Freeman, ‘Rob, you know we’re going to get sued.’ He couldn’t believe it—he said, ‘How are we going to get sued?’ I said, ‘Rob, this is America—we’re going to get sued.’”

 

Riverside Superior Court Judge E. Michael Kaiser tossed out the lawsuit, but attorneys for the city pressed on, buying off Riversiders for Property Rights for $11,000 and appealing the ruling to the California Fourth District Court of Appeals. On Oct. 12, 2007, the appellate reversed Kaiser’s decision. 

 

But Riverside voters had had enough: Less than a month later in what was widely seen as a referendum on redevelopment policies, Betro was defeated in his re-election bid by eminent-domain opponent Mike Gardner. Ward Three Councilman Art Gage—who’d spent much of his time on the panel feuding with his colleagues—was defeated by Rusty Bailey, while Adams managed to keep his seat by just 16 votes. Also elected to the council was Chris MacArthur, who took the Ward Five seat vacated by Ed Atkison. 

 

Since the election, observers have noticed a decided shift in tone at City Hall. Gone are the days when residents were verbally derided at council meetings by their elected leaders for daring to criticize public policy. More important, the eminent-domain fever that gripped the council for so long appears to have finally broken—no one talks about seizing private property any more, at least not publicly. Stansbury says he’s also noticed a change in mood among city employees.

 

“There’s an esprit de corps in City Hall now that I really like, because with that last class [of council members], you could feel the tension on every floor,” he says. “You could feel it in the elevator when you walk in, that City Hall isn’t on pins and needles anymore. And I like that—I want that in my City Hall. I want my elected servants feeling good about what they do and feeling proud because they know they’re going to do better jobs.”

 

That’s a remarkable statement coming from a guy who in interviews with the Weekly once referred to certain council members as “thugs” and the city’s Redevelopment Agency as “quasi-fascist.”  

 

The new good will is mutual. At the council’s Jan. 13 meeting, the panel named Stansbury Riverside’s Arts Honoree of the month. Gardner, Adams and council members Nancy Hart and Andy Melendrez then took turns heaping praise on the man attorneys for the city once sued to shut up. 

 

“I also want to thank Ken for his activism in the city of Riverside,” Adams said. “Though we’re often on the wrong side of the page, we’ve always been congenial, and I appreciate that.

 

In a phone call Friday, Mayor Ron Loveridge also complimented Stansbury’s work, describing the artist as “an engaging, dramatic fellow and passionate about what he does and thinks.”

 

Stansbury’s murals are part of the city’s Private Murals Project, a beautification program that was created in 2005 but kept largely inactive until last year. Stansbury says he was approached by Downtown Partnership Executive Director Janice Penner, who asked him if he were interested in doing a mural for the city and then worked with Loveridge for the necessary approvals. The gig was eventually expanded at Stansbury’s suggestion to three murals. The works are funded through a $10,000 grant, of which Stansbury will be compensated about $8,000. 

 

While the Market mural between 10th and 11th streets appears to be an ad for a citrus company—the words Opera Brand are emblazoned on it in big, bold letters—it is, in fact, branding Riverside’s history of support for civic opera. Working off two faded photographs, Stansbury painted two Riverside Lyric Opera dancers standing before a backdrop of hills and citrus groves.  

 

All three planned murals in the project evoke Riverside’s musical roots: The first, a 15-foot-by-40-foot painting completed last year on a wall of Aces and Eights Bail Bonds on Lemon Street and University Avenue, is titled “Ballet Brand” and depicts two Riverside Ballet dancers. The third, for which a location has yet to be found, will be called “Symphony Brand” and will likely honor Riverside County Philharmonic Conductor Patrick Flynn, who died in September.

 

All three hearken to the city’s history as a citrus-producing giant. 

 

“Riverside in its heyday had the highest income per capita [in Southern California] because of the citrus industry,” Stansbury says. “Fruit-crate label art was developed during that era, and were based on advertising art criteria. You’d see a crate with the Nabisco brand on it, in front a big vista of groves. It was the era of brand advertising.”

 

Were it not for the history of bad blood, City Hall’s selection of Stansbury to do the murals would seem a logical choice. The artist was born and raised in Riverside, and his works already can be seen throughout the city. Perhaps his most noticed public art is the mural he painted inside downtown’s Antonious Pizza Cafe on Main Street. 

 

“I remember watching City Hall being built,” he says. “As a teenager, I used to fly kites off the heliport, and I’d go up there all the time just to sketch.”


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