The long tentacles of the law

In Walla Walla, people have a habit of parking opposite to traffic when they leave their cars curbside. In Walla Walla, a resident fond of chainsaw sculpture has set something like 20-odd statues around his Alder Street lawn. In Walla Walla, people construct chicken coops in their back yards, or leave crumbing old cars on the street while they take years to get around to restoring them, and nobody bats an eye. One of the effects, perhaps, of living in the land of the libertarian is a stubborn inattentiveness to city code. So when the owner of the Inland Octopus, an old-fashioned toy store, moved a few blocks west on Main Street and commissioned a mural be painted on his store front, I would hazard a guess that he never thought anyone would come after him over anything as esoteric as ordinances.

And yet, that’s at issue. His mural, which wasn’t exactly painted overnight, has been deemed illegal by the city. Even letting the image burn into one’s retinas for more than two seconds is punishable by a fine. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But only a little.

Of course Bob Catsiff, the store owner, reviewed the city code, he says. Walla Walla City Council says his mural is four times the size allowed by code. Code, code, code. Since when does Walla Walla care about code, I ask? How many houses have I seen with jury-rigged electrical systems, leaning additions, or railings that looked like they were designed to entrap objects the rough shape of toddlers’ heads?

The Council is hearing public comment today about whether residents like the mural or not. Oh, if only I were there. I would love to see who steps up to the microphone for each side, like we’re conducting a Capitol Hill hearing on migrant farm labor. Is anyone going to say anything that changes the facts of the issue? Either the mural should get a waiver or it shouldn’t.

I suppose that this isn’t as simple an issue as it sounds. It goes to some other things, like how do residents really feel about the four blocks of downtown Walla Walla? Does it go against the wine tourism there? Can we groove to its cartoonish aesthetic or not? What is the purpose of art? There are all kinds of random statues in downtown already, presumably none of which are offensive in the way that some residents say the mural offends. Here are just a few of them:

Sure, there’s a rhyme and reason here. All of the inductive reasoning in the world can’t come up with a pattern to the art in town. That’s not a bad thing. But surely there’s room in people’s hearts for a purple cephalopod. And if not, then let’s get on all of the city codes and ordinances.

Park the right way on the street, people!

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9 Comments on “The long tentacles of the law”

  1. October 12, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    I am still baffled by the reaction to this mural. I think it’s awesome. And everything you say about the, uh, quirkiness of this town is so true, so why in the heck does this mural offend?

    I suppose that goes back to the quirkiness of this town?

    PS — My partner gets super annoyed by the wrong-way-facing street parking, too.

  2. evmaroon
    October 12, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    I know, I don’t get the fuss! It’s t the most beautiful picture, but this is the town that made a stink over the recreated statue of David, so maybe they just hate everything.
    I’ll be back for a day next week, so I will check out the mural in person.

  3. deb
    October 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    My daughter lives is Walla Walla and we visit often. In our little town in central Montana, we have an acronym: CAVES “Citizens Against Virtually Everything” It’s always the same ones who want to insert their opinion and seem to get the most attention when they are in a dissenting position. Could this be the situation in your community? I agree urban blight is a much more reasonable pursuit.

    • evmaroon
      October 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

      That’s a great point—is a mural, even if it isn’t to one’s taste, really a problem that has to be eradicated? Does the Council think it’s the start of a slippery slope, that next year it’ll look like Times Square hit Main Street? Would they prefer downtown look more like the western outskirts of town? Can Walla Walla be big enough to have one, single mural in its midst?

  4. Barb
    October 14, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    I have lived in Walla Walla all my life. Chicken coops in backyards and crumbling old cars on the street are a rarity. This article makes Walla Walla sound like a hick town full of libertarian hippies. It is actually a diverse little town with three colleges, pretty tree lined streets and a really active community on facebook that likes to stir things up occaisionally.

    • evmaroon
      October 14, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

      I’m not saying that everyone has a 1940s-era car out front of their house, but the yard I’m thinking of has several cars all lined up, some taking away parking space on the street. I can think of one llama, one wallaby, and three households with chicken coops in Walla Walla, but I also know people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Oregon who have their own chicken coops. I’ve got nothing against chicken coops—I’d love to have one myself! My point is that for a town in which folks are largely left to their own devices, it interests me that this one instance of alleged code violation is getting so much attention. Adler Street is one block away from Main Street, but whatever obvious code violations are visible from the street haven’t caused anyone on the City Council to put their foot down and insist on any kind of change. I know the zoning is different for each street, but I and others have questions about what the big deal is with a purple octopus. It raises questions about who Main Street is for, how we understand public and commercial art, and what we want Walla Walla to be. If it’s such a diverse town, why don’t we see that diversity in downtown?

      I certainly don’t think of Walla Walla as a hick town, but yes, it is very right-leaning, at least compared to many other places in the country. It went 58 percent for McCain in the last election, well above the national average. I appreciate diverse and differing points of view, which is why I’d lean to keeping the mural. Because like I said in the article, if we’re going to demand the owner submit to the city code, then really, I’d love to see those old jalopies removed from Balm Street.

    • evmaroon
      October 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

      Also, you’re right about the tree-lined streets. I love that Walla Walla has a tree touring map from the parks and recreation office.

  5. Sammy
    October 15, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    The mural is an eyesore.

    They were told NOT to paint it. They were told NOT to put it up. They ignored what they were told so why is everyone crying outrage when it’s deemed unfit for the area it is in? The city spent lots of money restoring the buildings all around that mural, to bring it back to the way it looked.

    That gaudy piece of artwork is out of place and an eyesore.

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