Spurred by the controversy surrounding the naming of San Diego's new convention center, four artists have painted an 11-by-22-foot billboard downtown that refers to the problem of designating a suitable tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In a multiple-choice format, the billboard legend reads: "Welcome to America's Finest a) city b) tourist plantation c) Convention Center," beside a black-and-white portrait of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner. The billboard is at 11th Avenue and G Street.
Painter Deborah Small said she and her colleagues were troubled "that San Diego is having such a difficult time finding a tribute for Martin Luther King. I think the city officials are listening to only certain voices in the community and are ignoring other voices."
Takeoff on Slogan
The billboard's format, which has already been duplicated in more than 1,000 bumper stickers and post cards, is a takeoff on San Diego's unofficial slogan as "America's Finest City." The billboard was funded through city, state and federal art grants and is one of two donated to Installation Gallery by Gannett Outdoor Advertising for temporary public art.
In January, 1988, three of the four artists created a similar public artwork that temporarily rode through the city on the advertising panels at the rear of 100 San Diego Transit buses.
Titled "Welcome to America's Finest Tourist Plantation," the 6-foot-long panels--which depicted undocumented aliens working in hotels and restaurants as well as being arrested--was a commentary on how foreign workers are exploited by San Diego's tourist industry.
Small recently joined those artists--Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock and David Avalos--to paint the billboard as part of Artwalk, a downtown art festival to be held April 22 and 23.
The four are critical of Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who in February held out little hope that the center would ever be renamed for King.
Rebuffed by commissioners of the San Diego Unified Port District, who refused to vote to change the convention center's name to honor King, O'Connor sought to "come up with a solution that would unite the community, not divide it."
More Discussion Sought
"The public, in other words, should not be heard," the artists said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "A silent city is the 'finest' city. Avoiding controversy, however, does not avoid racism."
Paul Downey, O'Connor's press secretary, said the "public did have an ample time to speak. There were several hours of public hearings . . . when both sides had a chance to speak on it. It's the mayor's intention and desire to find a fitting and suitable memorial to Dr. King in San Diego."
The artists believe the billboard will encourage the community to become involved in the discussion of such a tribute.
"For me, there is a thread of attitude that runs from closet racism toward undocumented Mexicans to a city that says it will honor a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and fails to do that time and time again," Sisco said.
The city has been unable to agree on a tribute to King since 1986. A City Council vote that year to rename Market Street as Martin Luther King Way was overwhelmingly rejected in a 1987 voter referendum. Following a campaign led by merchants, the Market Street name was reinstated.
O'Connor then established a committee to select a tribute for King. After taking seven months of testimony, the committee recommended adding King's name to the convention center, although the members had vowed not to rename any existing facility.
Honor on the Terrace
The council voted 7 to 2 in January to rename the center for King. But in February, the Port District, which is building the center, refused to vote on the change. Instead, commissioners chose to turn the center's terrace into an "Avenue of Honors," with King as the first inductee.
O'Connor is expected to place the issue on the council docket this month, Downey said Wednesday.
"The council will either send it back, accept the port recommendation or suggest an alternative recommendation," he said.
The billboard, meanwhile, is part of a larger public campaign to generate support for an appropriate King tribute, said Cleo Malone, executive director of a recovery home for drug addicts and alcoholics and one of three black leaders who advised the artists on the project.
"The people of San Diego should answer the question" on the billboard, Malone said. "Of course, it's a multiple choice. They should ask that question of themselves . . . listen to their hearts. As long as attitudes and apparent racism continue to divide our community, we really do need to ask this question."