Artist Mona Gazala wants Columbus to save other crews

Andy Downing
Artist Mona Gazala (seated) with Michael Skelton (left) and Laura Recchie at OSU Urban Arts Space

Amid the public #SaveTheCrew push, an idea took shape in artist Mona Gazala’s head in which she started to question Columbus’ civic priorities and the other overlooked “crews” that tend to draw far less public attention.

“We’re going to spend a lot of tax dollars breaking ground on a new Crew Stadium … and meanwhile we have schools that are crumbling and we can’t seem to figure out how to fix those,” Gazala said during a late February interview Downtown at OSU Urban Arts Space, where her current exhibit, “Saving the Crew Matters,” is on display during regular gallery hours through March 14. “And it’s that dynamic I was questioning in my project.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a stack of postcards featuring black and white photographs of children emblazoned with yellow lettering that reads, “Save the Crew.” On the back of each, a single question is posed: “What are our civic and moral priorities?” Instructions posted nearby inform visitors to address a postcard to Mayor Andrew Ginther or any city council member (mailing addresses for all are included), along with “a personal note concerning the civic and ethical priorities of this city.” The cards can then be left for Gazala, who will add postage and mail them in batches.

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Flanking the central rack of postcards is a light board reading, “Look how quickly you mobilized for something that didn’t matter,” along with a series of photographs stamped with the hashtag #AsSeenInFranklinton and depicting residents populating “the other Franklinton” — folks often overlooked in the types of city branding campaigns run by civic leaders.

As part of the exhibit, Gazala is also hosting a trio of “Human Library” events, the third and final of which takes place at 4 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, and centers on Franklinton. In a “Human Library,” people serve as informative “books,” engaging audience conversation on a given subject, in this case the stadium funding controversy, the state of Columbus public schools and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Thursday’s event will feature Franklinton resident and organizer Michael Skelton and Laura Recchie, founder of community development association Root + Branch, both of whom Gazala came to know through her work at Second Sight Project, her Franklinton home and art space.

“This seemed to turn into the Franklinton [panel], and since gentrification is a huge issue in terms of where our city puts its resources, it made sense for it to be a topic of discussion,” Gazala said.

“Look at the dystopian priorities that are on display in Franklinton. We can’t fix the curb or the ‘boring’ municipal infrastructure of the city, but they’ll spend millions on Gravity and these other projects,” interjected Skelton, who has lived in Franklinton for eight years, a time in which he’s been witness to radical changes. “There is that point where financially [gentrification] might force you out, where you’re constantly hounded by robo calls offering cash for your house, [investors] preying upon someone who might be in dire straits. Or you might be facing sudden, surprising code violations. Maybe it’s someone whose paint has been chipped for 12 years, and all of a sudden the city’s interested in beautification, like, ‘You’ve got 90 days.’ And that’s a shock to people. That’s pressure. That’s stress. … It’s all of these things working in concert against you, the little guy.”

“Franklinton is particularly interesting because it is at this tipping point,” said Recchie, whose work focuses on mitigating the displacement associated with gentrification. “Some might say that parts of east Franklinton are past it, but it’s in this place where the right policies, the right activities, could mitigate displacement, where other places in the city are too far gone.”

These activities could include things like offering housing assistance to help long-term residents make necessary code upgrades, as well as the construction of community centers and artist housing, or neighborhood investment into things like workforce training, education and community outreach rather than offering up public dollars in the form of tax abatements designed to entice the private sector to build properties that can function as high-priced satellite campuses, drawing upwardly mobile young professionals and offering little benefit to longtime residents.

“It’s creating what’s called ‘shared value,’ which is something everyone gets to participate in,” Recchie said. “It’s a way of sort of mitigating the consequences of economic growth. I think the hard thing when you talk about gentrification is that a lot of people read it as anti-investment or anti-growth. They hear [anti-gentrification talk] as, ‘You’d rather your neighborhood stay poor.’ And no one is arguing that, which has been a tough thing not just for Columbus, but anywhere you go. This is a tough thing for city officials, developers and neighbors to figure out that dynamic.”

“It’s not that we don’t want nice things, or we don’t want city expenditures, but who gets them? How are they fairly distributed?” Gazala said. “Are we investing just in people in a higher tax bracket? Are we investing just in corporations? Or are we investing more equitably?”

These are the types of questions Gazala engages regularly in her social practice art, which she said isn’t activated until the public engages with a given work.

“I feel like it’s my, not duty, but input to create a premise,” she said, “and that premise is then completed by other people who participate in the art.”

"Human Library" event

OSU Urban Arts Space

50 W. Town St., Downtown

4-5 p.m. Thursday, March 5

"Saving the Crew Matters"