From City Beautiful to Art Box Project SJ

From the late 1890s into the 1920s, there was a national movement in the United States to create more livable cities. At its core, this movement believed that cities should be more than simply places where people work and lived.

It was a movement that espoused the idea that cities should be aesthetically pleasant; cities should be planned and laid out in such a way that beauty and open space and greenery and art are integrated into the fabric of people’s lives.

The movement was called City Beautiful and its adherents held that urban planning and beautification would enhance and promote “moral and civic virtue.” City Beautiful was a “modern” idea that sought to reach every urban area, large and small.

Though it is most often associated with large American cities of the era (i.e., Chicago, Cleveland, etc.), the influence of City Beautiful spread far and wide. Many of its principles became part of accepted thinking with regard to the makeup of cities.

San Jose activist Tina Morrill may or may not know about City Beautiful. I have never discussed it with her, but her passion is a local program called Art Box Project San Jose, which I think is a direct descendant of City Beautiful. If you are not familiar with this local hero, you should be.

The urban landscape of every American city is populated with these obnoxious power boxes that contain wiring and electrical equipment. You see them and try not to notice them because they are so drab and have no relevance. And yet, these boxes are very noticeable when they are covered with graffiti or tagged by moronic vandals.

Tina Morrill had the idea to transform these drab, often vandalized boxes into objects of beauty. Legend has it that the inspiration for the Art Box Project San Jose came from some photographs taken by the insightful writer and world-traveler Gary Singh. Tina suggested the beautification of San Jose power boxes, by artists, was needed here. Gary said that he didn’t think it could happen in San Jose. Tina replied, “Wanna bet?”

There are now about three dozen of these works of art. Tina’s years as a community activist gave her the kind of vision it takes to push through a project like this. She meets with neighborhood and business associations to identify a box for transformation, and they reach a consensus on a theme or design and engage a local artist to do the work.
The range of artistry is truly amazing and it is worthwhile for any citizen to take a tour of the boxes. Enjoy them when you see them. You may also check out the Art Box Project SJ’s Facebook page. The fact that the artwork replaces tagging is an extra bonus. City Beautiful lives on.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected]  or 408.893.PARK.

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