May 14, 2013 10:20:54 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
A nod to the past is taking noticeable shape.
With street light replacement and paving already complete and sidewalk installation, completion of a mural and landscape improvements all set to be wrapped up by June 6, officials are on schedule for a mid-June ceremony to celebrate Catfish Alley. City planner Christina Berry said no exact date has been set for the event, which honors the memory and legacy of the predominantly black men and women who owned and worked in businesses on Fourth Street between Main Street and College Street, an area best known as Catfish Alley.
Officials will unveil the memorial marker, currently under wraps behind Front Door Back Door Restaurant, that pays homage to the area's history as an important commercial center for African-Americans as well as a place where mingling of races was commonplace in an era otherwise known for its rigid segregation.
Coordinating the mural portion of the project is Mississippi University for Women art professor Alex Stelioes-Willis and two students in a special topics mural painting course. The painting, which he said would encapsulate the vitality of the area in multiple eras of its lifespan, will be on the side of the Front Door Back Door restaurant. It is loosely inspired by a famous fresco from Renaissance artist Raphael entitled "The School of Athens," which consists of multiple philosophers, namely Plato and Aristotle, grouped together who didn't live at the same time but imagines them all in one space.
"The concept is from the south side of the street looking north, the people who are going to be up front are from the 1960s and 70s and as they go back in time, the more distant people in the back of the painting are from the 1920s. To a certain degree, the design came in part from the fact that I haven't had one perfect photo source to work from, so this is from a larger scale and a design that could encompass a lot of different sources," Stelioes-Willis said. "It's supposed to be a night scene of Catfish Alley. The MUW library has a lot of photos of the architecture there at different times, but just by looking at photo sources you don't get an idea of how vibrant the place was, and we would like to incorporate that as much as possible."
Stelioes-Willis said he's appreciated the support city officials have shown in his portion of the project and looks forward to having it on public display.
"I've done some other public murals and really enjoyed the process because compared to other artwork, you do have to be more collaborative and think about what other people are expecting. You have to try really hard to make as many connections as possible and make sure everything is included," he said. "It's interesting because a collaborative end result is something different than my work. We want the end part of the product to be everybody's painting, a community's work. The city and mayor's office have been really passionate and enthusiastic about the project and it's exciting to be a part of this. It's a challenge to make sure the mural lives up to that standard."
City engineer Kevin Stafford said the sidewalk portion of the project began early last week and repairs will not only enhance the visual appeal but bring the accessibility of the area up to modern Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Both he and Columbus Light and Water General Manager Todd Gale said the funding budgeted for their parts of the project are either running on or below what was budgeted.
"Entrances into facilities were not ADA accessible. A lot of the sidewalk did not meet ADA code," Stafford said. "All those improvements are going to bring a lot of aesthetic appeal (the area) didn't have and provide a nice tie into existing sidewalks on Main Street. It's a face-lift all the way around aesthetically and improves accessibility."
As for the landscaping, Berry said she hopes the installation of carved-out flowerbeds and benches will create the feel of a pocket park or a small urban open space. Berry said she hopes to add another feature, festival lights, to the project.
"We're wanting to make the street more festive looking. We'd like to install festival lights from building to building from Main Street to about where Front Door Back Door is, and we're hoping to get some buy-in on that," Berry said. "Catfish Alley has a lot of history and was a place where a lot of people came and had a good time, and we want to make it look as such. Catfish Alley is an important aspect of downtown Columbus and we want to make sure it's preserved, that we recognize that area and its contributors. It's reflective of the entire community to make sure that history isn't lost."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.