June 28 2006 12:00 AM

The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial public-art project has lagged for a decade. Why?

San Diego has a dream. An insignificant patch of land could one day, in the not-so-distant future, be home to the city's first large-scale memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.

The proposed memorial, honoring America's most famous civil rights leader, would sit atop an embankment stretching between Home and Euclid avenues along the south side of the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway. Ideally, such a memorial would transform the frenetic freeway environment, offering drivers a quick moment of pause in tribute to the man whose dreams changed a nation.

Right now, the embankment sits vacant. Large patches of ice plant tumble down the slope; a few plastic bags and paper cups and thousands of yellowed cigarette butts lay scattered among the chunks of spiky green. At the top of the embankment, a 12-foot-high retaining wall separates the land from San Diego's Diamond District (a diamond-shaped area that includes communities like Emerald Hills and Mt. Hope); nearby are the Malcolm X Library and the culturally rich Market Creek Plaza.

The dream to build a King memorial in an area considered the cultural hub of Southeast San Diego was first proposed nearly 10 years ago. The city didn't—and still doesn't—have much in the way of a King memorial, and the location made sense. Not only would the memorial be in the thick of the ethnically diverse City Council District 4, but thousands of motorists would be able to grab a glance during their daily commutes.

After 10 years of debate and delay, the dream has recently seen some progress. A month ago, the city announced the winning design proposal for the site. A large, steel cutout of King as the Baptist preacher with his arms outstretched, surrounded by two smaller steel images—one of the Montgomery bus boycott and the other of the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches—could soon take root on the barren embankment. The retaining wall would get a fresh coat of paint, and the ice plant would be replaced by a garden in the design of African Kuba cloth. Children's images from around the world would be sandblasted into stones placed throughout the garden.

But even with a plan now in place, the decade-old “dream” has been delayed once again. Funding difficulties, bickering and bureaucratic entanglements are keeping the embankment untouched. No shovel has broken ground.

The flaming hoops of public art

George Stevens, former District 4 City Council member, and Gary Gallegos, who used to be the district director for Caltrans, first brought up the idea for the King memorial in 1996, but the project sat on the political backburner until 1999, when it gained financial backing. Caltrans, which owns the proposed site, was awarded $336,000 in federal and local grant money.

But even after funding was secured, the memorial again lingered for half a decade longer. It wasn't until 2004 that Caltrans finally brought the memorial back to life and contracted with the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture. The commission—driven by Dana Springs, the public art program administrator—got the project going, giving it an official name, The Martin Luther King Commemorative Artwork, and categorizing it as public art.

Springs, a well-spoken, organized and knowledgeable professional who tends to gesture dramatically with her hands when she speaks, says the project's been a long time coming because it's “hard to streamline something as controversial as public art.

“There are always so many personalities and so many parties involved in the creation of a public artwork that there's no way everyone can be pleased,” Springs said. “The nature of public artwork—just public art in general—immediately brings up the idea that not everyone's going to like it.”

San Diego is often criticized for its lackluster public art. Partly because of conservative undertones and an unwillingness to take risks, the city is left with works like the colorful but safe outdoor face sculpture “Coming Together,” which sits on the San Diego Convention Center's east lawn, or the predictable steel boat sculpture called “Isis” that decorates the large grassy median at the intersection of North Harbor Drive and West Laurel Street.

Taxpayers are sensitive to public art because, in most cases, they pay for it, and the land the artwork sits on is valuable and quickly disappearing open, public space.

Springs says the complaints she's been hearing about the King memorial are similar to complaints she's heard before. She said she predicted even more controversy with the memorial than with other public art projects because of the “culturally sensitive nature.”

“It's so big and it affects so many people,” she said, “plus, the subject matter is really important to a lot of people.”

Given the potential for uproar, Springs decided to seek community involvement early on. She held an open meeting and let the folks in attendance set the guidelines for the request for qualifications (RFQ)—the official document detailing who's eligible to apply to create the memorial.

“The community only wanted artists from this region,” said Springs, “Tijuana and San Diego.”

Playing the race card

“The commission should have specifically sought African-American artists,” said a furious Karen Huff, founder of San Diego's Black Historical Society. Huff is a passionate, aggressive black activist who isn't afraid to play the race card. She said the Black Historical Society doesn't support the King memorial and never will. “The way the RFQ was written precluded African-American artists from applying. The eligible artists included San Diego and Tijuana,” she said, pausing long enough to let out a few brief, sarcastic laughs. “Tijuana—I mean, come on.”

Huff acknowledges that King's message is one of racial equality but says that misses the point.

“There's no other way around it. You're talking about Martin Luther King,” she said. “People say he was all about multiculturalism so it doesn't matter. Well, actually, it does.... You want to make sure that you include African-American artists, that they at least have the opportunity to be involved.... They certainly made sure that the RFQ was drafted in a way that included Hispanics. Had they not done that, maybe we wouldn't be arguing the way we are.”

Huff says the problem with limiting eligibility to San Diego and Tijuana is that “Southern California is not known as a bastion of African-American artists.” Therefore, Huff said, the commission should have opened the project up to areas that are known for African-American art—places like Detroit and Atlanta. By opening the project only to San Diego County and Tijuana, Huff said, it seemed the commission was soliciting another artist group altogether.

“Someone decided it would be better to go after some Hispanic artists,” she said.

Public artist Jihyme Collins isn't happy with the way the King memorial has taken shape, either, but he says it has nothing to do with race. A black artist who's lived in District 4 for more than 20 years, he says he wants to see the memorial move forward. He wants to see something great built for King. But he's unhappy with the way the artist-selection panel decided on the final three teams.

Making the short list

An RFQ for the King memorial was released on Nov. 20, 2004. About four months later, the artist-selection panel gathered on the 12th floor of City Hall to look over the applications.

“I have been haunted by that initial meeting,” said Collins, who served on the panel as a community representative.

The panel's job was to review all applications and select no more than three artist teams to go on to the next step: the conceptual design phase, in which the three teams are awarded a small stipend to come up with specific proposals for the site. “Shortlisting,” as it's called, is often a long, grueling process, mainly because it involves varied and personal opinions about something as nebulous as art.

The panel had to choose from a pool of approximately 25 artist teams who had submitted applications. Only one black lead artist applied—Jean Cornwell, an experienced local public artist whose most well-known work is the 40-foot outdoor mosaic mural at the Malcolm X Branch Library. Cornwell, however, was eliminated.

Collins argues that the way in which Cornwell was eliminated was unfair. “Authority was assumed, to make new rules as the process went along.”

According to Collins' account, although the first vote taken by the panel included Cornwell's team in the final three, the panelists were bothered that Cornwell's teammate, big-time Los Angeles public artist Judy Baca, was also on another team that had made it to the final three—a team led by another local public artist, Philip Matzigkeit. It came down to a comparison between Matzigkeit's and Cornwell's applications.

“In total,” said Collins, “it took five votes to secure the outcome that was presented to the public.”

Because the voting happened more than a year ago, many of the panelists interviewed by CityBeat were unable to recall why they had voted against Cornwell. Panelist Victor Ochoa, who says he favored Cornwell, says he thinks it came down to the aesthetics of the application itself. He says Cornwell's application was written in pen and included slides that had to be projected one by one. Matzigkeit's slides were on a disc, and his application was presented using PowerPoint—a much slicker, modern approach.

“Sometimes people judge you by those kind of things,” said Ochoa.

For her part, Cornwell has no idea why she was eliminated, but she says she doesn't care. “I thought the money should be spent on a center or something besides a public-arts project,” she said matter-of-factly.

Plus, Cornwell said, she had only applied for the King memorial because the commission asked her to. Cornwell has several public-art projects on her résumé and has served on artist-selection panels in the past. She said she stopped serving on panels because she always felt like the “token black girl”.

Her experience with public art has taught her to roll with the political punches. “I didn't question it because I've been through the process before, and I do know it can get very political,” explained Cornwell, who, years ago, was one of the six semifinalists who made it to the proposal stage for the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade—a linear park located near the Convention Center that contains a few public-art projects, including a small sculpture memorial to King. Cornwell ended up being voted out because community members at the time expressed concerns over only black artists making it to the final three. “This is experience over several years, and it's no fun,” said Cornwell. “When politics get involved with art, it just takes the fun out of it.”

The artist-selection panel eventually selected the three final teams: the lead artists were Matzigkeit, Lynn Schuette and Wick Alexander, all local, experienced public artists.

And the winner is....

Springs gave CityBeat a chance to view the three proposals. One was presented as a 3D-animated video, the other two as scale models—the animation stood out from the two others. Matzigkeit and Baca had put together a video complete with music, a recorded voiceover and views of their site proposal from various angles and directions. It amounted to an impressive virtual-reality tour.

At the end of the video, however, Springs offered an unusual addendum. She said the project, both the laser steel cutout sculptures pictured in the video and the “Garden of Dreams for the Future”—a garden with children's drawings sandblasted into stones laid within a landscaping pattern reflective of a traditional African design—would cost an extra $100,000. The project's initial $200,000 budget would cover just the steel cutouts—no garden.

The panel was told the same thing, but despite the rather unconventional stipulation, Baca and Matzigkeit's proposal won.

Competing artists, panelists and interested community members agreed that the budget was too small for the scope of the project to begin with. At one of the first public meetings, on Oct. 18, 2005, according to notes from the session, someone said, “Two-hundred thousand is chump change. I would rather see nothing than something that's chintzy because it wasn't adequately funded.”

The $336,000 grant Caltrans had been awarded was divided up as part of standard public-art procedure: 10 percent set aside for site maintenance and 20 percent to cover administrative costs, leaving 70 percent for the artwork. When the size of the site is considered—1,400 feet of embankment plus the retaining wall—the $200,000 budget becomes minuscule.

Two of the teams stuck to the budget, such as it was. Both teams said the budget is usually the No. 1 concern in public-art projects, especially for a city as financially strapped as San Diego. “When we were doing the design, we always had to keep in mind the budget,” said Neil Kendricks, a local filmmaker and a part of Schuette's team. “We couldn't just wildly come out with our dream vision of what we wanted it to be. We had to be thinking constantly about materials, costs, landscaping, traffic control... all of that has to be pulled from that budget, and we had to work within that.”

Schuette agreed and said the difference in budget gave the winning team an unfair advantage. “Looking at it objectively,” she said, “how can you take three proposals when one is significantly different? For me it goes back to the ethics of the panelists. Maybe this $300,000 proposal just looked dazzlingly better than the other two-well, it better for an extra $100,000, but how do you justify calling that a fair decision?”

Alexander's team felt restrained by the budget, too. “We were always told that this was the budget and we had to design within the budget,” he said. “I think, realistically, [Matzigkeit and Baca] were looking at a $450,000 project.”

Now what?

At this stage, no one really knows just how much the winning proposal will cost to construct.

Weeks ago, Springs said the memorial was undergoing a feasibility study and, therefore, was back in the hands of Caltrans. Tom Ham, district landscape architect for Caltrans and the King memorial project manager, said the artists were in the process of getting bids from contractors and engineers. He said he was waiting to see some concrete cost estimates. But the artists said they weren't out getting bids; neither had heard anything from Springs or Ham.

“We're waiting on a contract and a few thousand [dollars] from the commission—$10,000 to be exact—so we can go get the bids,” Matzigkeit said.

“We're very understaffed,” Springs said, explaining the confusion. “We're in a bit of a bottleneck.... We've only got one person [in the commission's public-art program], and we've got a lot going on.” She said there'd been some miscommunication between the commission and Caltrans and that she had actually been holding off on drawing up the contract until she heard from Ham about the possibility of getting extra funding.

Just days ago, Springs said Ham had contacted her and said he hadn't had any luck in finding extra money—he'd been hoping to find an extra $100,000 by going to private and corporate sponsors. When that didn't work, Ham went to other Caltrans projects and tried to tap into their budgets. That didn't work, either.

With the possibility of extra funding gone, Springs says she'll move forward with the contract and get the artists going on the bidding process by midsummer. The artists, however, have indicated that they wouldn't want to go forward without the extra $100,000 for the memorial's garden.

“We were quite honest when we went to the [panel],” Matzigkeit said. “They asked pointblank, ‘What if we can't raise the money,' and we said, ‘Find another team.'”

Unfortunately, very few San Diegans even know the proposal exists, so nobody is actively monitoring its progress. The commission didn't have any information about the memorial posted for the public on its website until after CityBeat's first meeting with Springs, and now the only information available is a brief paragraph veiled in official jargon—there's no real description of the memorial's scope and scale.

Will the memorial get lost in the squabbles, the bureaucracy and the lack of funding? Springs and Ham promise that the project will be completed. These kinds of problems happen with most large-scale public art projects, they insist. Neither, however, ventured to nail down a completion date. On paper, the proposed date is November 2007. But Ham says he'd like to see construction begin this year.

“This has taken an inordinate amount of time, but it's not for lack of trying,” he said.

The “dream,” then, is reportedly alive, just a little lost.

10 freakin' years?

On a recent cloudy morning, I sat in the empty reception room of former District 4 City Councilmember George Stevens' office on the corner of Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue waiting for “The Reverend,” as some call him, to show. He rolled up in his shiny Jaguar about 30 minutes late. He parked, then pulled an old green and white street sign from the back of his car. The sign read “Dr. M.L. King Way.”

A week prior, I had talked to Stevens for more than an hour. Half serious rant, half soapbox prattle, he filled me in on a bit of our city's history regarding Martin Luther King Jr.

“There's just been such a rejection of him in San Diego,” opined Stevens, who, along with former Caltrans District Director Gary Gallegos, first proposed the idea for the King memorial nearly 10 years ago. Now, Stevens wants no part of the King memorial project. Originally picked to be on the artist-selection panel, Stevens attended one meeting then turned his back in disappointment and disgust.

“What they're trying to do with this project now is a make up for some things they did not do related to Dr. King in the past,” Stevens said. “That's why you're calling me; they're still trying to do that. Just like they did with the freeway.... It's a piecemeal sort of a thing.”

Consolation freeway, a drive-by history

California State Highway 94—the chunk of cement stretching from Downtown through District 4 and out to Campo—was renamed The Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway in 1989. Then-state Sen. Waddie Deddeh, a Democrat who represented the 40th District, was behind the push for the name change but had indicated at the time that no tax dollars could be used; instead, all funding for the construction and installations of the new signs would have to come from private contributions. The grassroots funding made the highway name change a slow and arduous process.

Stevens said that, initially, enough money was raised through private donations to buy just one sign, but not enough money to have it properly installed. Instead, Stevens said, the sign was placed in the ice plant on the side of the G Street entrance to the freeway. He said the “M” and “L” part of “MLK” were soon painted over to make the sign read “KKK.”

“People don't like to talk about that part of San Diego's history,” Stevens said.

It wasn't until 10 years later, September 1998, that SANDAG finally stepped in and authorized $1.4 million to have the signs properly installed.

But even with the fancy reflective signs in place, Stevens still wasn't satisfied. He said he thought the renaming of the freeway was a sort of consolation prize, a resolution born out of a previous debacle over the renaming of downtown's Market Street.

Changing names

Market Street was a hotbed of African-American activity from the 1920s through the 1940s. Jazz clubs and black-owned businesses lined Market in an area that was once dubbed the “Harlem of the West.” That's why Market Street was the obvious choice when Coretta Scott King visited San Diego in 1985 and suggested the city name a street in honor of her fallen husband.

One year after Mrs. King's visit, the San Diego City Council voted in favor of renaming Market. Signs were quickly torn down and replaced, but business owners along the newly dubbed “Dr. M. L. King Way” weren't happy with their new addresses. According to Stevens, a few local businesses were the driving force behind an initiative to change it back.

It didn't take long for those business owners to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative. On Nov. 3, 1987, nearly 60 percent of voters favored amending the San Diego municipal code so that “the street now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Way irrevocably be renamed Market Street.”

Stevens and others who wanted to publicly honor the memory of King viewed this as another slap in the face—and they weren't about to settle for the Highway 94 consolation prize.

On Jan. 10, 1989, a group known as the San Diego Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Citizen's Committee recommended to the City Council that the Convention Center, which had yet to be officially named, be called the “San Diego Martin Luther King Jr. Convention Center.” With a vote of 7 to 2, the council passed the committee's recommendation.

But, because the Convention Center sits on 11 acres of land owned by the Port of San Diego, the name change never happened. Port commissioners voted against the city's recommendation, opting instead for the more marketable “San Diego Convention Center.”

African-American groups boycotted the Convention Center for nearly five years after that. The city tried to quash the problem with yet another consolation prize—a narrow, half-mile piece of land across the street from the Convention Center became the “Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade.” The impressive sounding promenade is actually a smallish, linear park. It's made up of a walkway with a few granite segments memorializing King's words and—among a handful of other, smaller public artworks—a large, steel disc-shaped sculpture with large chains dangling down one side called “Breaking of the Chains” by artist Melvin Edwards.

“We eventually got the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade,” remembered Stevens. “That was a little dab of something.”

Filled in on some of the recent controversy surrounding the King memorial, he grunted in an “I told you so” way and said, “It was a controversy from the start.”


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