Shouting from the mountain tops

Should we develop rules on using public places as a canvas to spread a message?

Two summers ago this week, two local artists used a pedestrian bridge over the Animas River in a creative fashion to make a statement about homelessness. A banner said, “If you lived under here you would be home now,” and a two-dimensional figure in black in the form of a businessman (the profiteer?) hung just above the water. But it was a curtain of CDs in different colors – to represent diversity – that reached the water that caused the statement to be quickly removed: Guides apparently thought it was a novel obstacle and were routing their rafts through it, and the city thought that was dangerous. Police (!) responded. Neither the curtain nor the two dimensional cutout had been listed by the artists on the city-required application.

This month, members of the First Baptist Church of Bayfield placed more than 4,000 1-foot-tall white crosses on the face of Chapman Hill. The crosses were an attempt to suggest people on the broad topic of child poverty. The application was properly filled out, and they were to be in place for a month. On the night of July 9, they all disappeared.

The speculation is that someone objected to a religious symbol on public property and took matters into his or her own hands. In the coming days, perhaps someone will speak up to confirm, or disabuse, that theory.

That the crosses were, well, a religious symbol, had not occurred to city staff members. The church’s accompanying banner was about poverty and hunger.

Two examples of the use of city of Durango property to make a statement do not make a trend. Nor are they identical. One was not true to its application, and the other might have been subjected to closer city scrutiny if it had been viewed as religious in nature. (Normally, public entities have no problem allowing their facilities to be used by religious groups; they just cannot discriminate among religions. A school meeting room is a common example.)

But, Durangoans being Durangoans, it is not unreasonable to expect additional requests to use very visible public property to deliver a social or a political – or a religious – message. River bridges and Chapman Hill are unusually appealing canvases, and there is no doubt that elevation and terrain changes along the valley could provide other eye-catching venues.

It looks as though the city is moving toward requiring a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic bags at the largest grocery retailers. Thus, that issue could begin to fade. What comes next? The higher-priced parking meters will be one, when they arrive later this summer.

But what should the requirements be for the use of public property for activist messages? The number of letters-to-the-editor has slowed, and we welcome the debate.