The Florida housing development has undergone a metamorphosis at the hands of Brandan “BMike” Odums, a 27-year-old art educator and literacy advocate.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, 127 shiny new apartments had recently been built in the Florida housing development, an 18.5-acre tract of land in the Upper Ninth Ward. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) had plans to build more. That didn’t happen, though. The units were damaged so badly during and after the storm that HANO closed down the Florida. The property has sat abandoned and rotting for eight years, yet another Katrina eyesore in the city.
Odums has taken the 17 or so crumbling townhouses that remain and turned them into mini art galleries called #ProjectBe — artistic alchemy, if you will, his way of transforming the ugliness of blight into an electrifying participatory art project.Odums, who lived in Japan and Korea in his youth, spray paints the walls to create exhibits that pay deference to the superheroes of his life. James Baldwin. Bart Simpson. Billie Holiday. Melvin Van Pebbles. Gordon Parks Jr. Frederick Douglass. The Incredible Hulk. Angela Davis.
#ProjectBe was never intended to be a “thing,” says the visual and media artist. It started out with Odums visiting the deserted spot, a popular canvass among other graffiti and street artists, as a creative outlet. When he started posting his mural creations on Instagram 13 weeks ago, he was instantly bombarded with interest; the overwhelming question: Where is this? He ignored the queries, telling his social-media fan base the work wasn’t yet ready.
He shared the location six weeks ago using the Instagram hash tag: #ProjectBe, and that’s when it went viral. Other artists began pouring in to express themselves alongside Odums, and blank walls have become a rarity. Now, there’s even a section that a group of female artists has claimed as the “Room of She,” emblazoned with images of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo among other expressions of the feminine. Local art lovers and sightseers, even out-of-town tourists, are visiting the gallery walk of sorts. Teachers are bringing students there on field trips too.
“#ProjectBe is about this moment. It’s about having peace within that moment because I know as soon as I walk away someone can come in here and throw some paint on it or these buildings could get knocked down,” says Odums, under the crunch of broken glass as he meticulously searches his cavernous backpack for the perfect colors of spray paint to begin work on his latest piece, a Black August tribute to George Jackson.
There is no overt political manifesto in the imagery Odums chooses, he says. He simply paints what he likes. His depictions of controversial figures like Huey P. Newton or historical accounts such as the Middle Passage aren’t aligned with a particular message.
“I am lionizing these images and boosting myself. I understand these narratives and because of understanding these stories, I affirm myself,” Odums says. “At the very least, people are forced to confront these images of people they either know nothing about or they weren’t prepared to deal with.”
Odums says he had no idea #ProjectBe would gain so much local and national attention. The subject of one piece contacted him about trying to purchase the building to salvage the image. And now, there’s also mumbling about saving some of the walls before what’s left of the complex is razed at the end of the year to make way for the new $14 million Florida development.Housing is what is truly needed, Odums says, not the preservation of masterpieces he created knowing full well that they would be fleeting. He approaches #ProjectBe in the same spiritual manner Tibetan monks labor on sand mandalas knowing that their work, intricately constructed geometric designs, will be blown away in ritual once complete, a metaphor for the impermanence of life.
“Street art and graffiti art are done knowing there’s a short expiration date. That’s the reason why I tell people to come and document it and participate themselves. This was a place overlooked for eight years and now the police are having a hard time keeping people out; and, that alone is an idea I feel can be reflected on and mimicked. This is a way to preserve it to make it live forever,” Odums says.
#ProjectBe, while a testimony to art in public spaces, feeds the universal voyeuristic fascination with crumbling façades, a fetish dubbed “ruin porn.” These buildings are tragically gorgeous, decadently derelict. There’s splendor in the unlikely — shards of glass, two-by-four boards with rusted upright nails and fiberglass insulation strewn about in the should-be living room with Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta in a loving embrace awash on a wall exposed to the studs in some places.
This attraction to urban decay has lead people from all walks of life to pilgrimage to #ProjectBe, and these visits may form the most revolutionary aspect of the project. #ProjectBe is actually a form of illegal tourism — though HANO has been understanding, visitors may not realize they are technically trespassing. And not only are they engaging with images and themes they might not normally encounter, they are visiting a public housing project intentionally. Maybe it’s a safe space to them because it is devoid of its original residents, but there they are, making merry among the rubble. With any luck they’ll give some thought to the broken systems, the too-damn-high rent, the distress, destruction and ultimately death that created these ruins in the first place.
At #ProjectBe, just like the ephemeral images on the soon-to-be demolished walls, your presence is part of the power of art.
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. She is currently communications coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 21LA. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.