Brawl on the Square

Jane Golden built the Mural Arts Program into one of the city’s proudest achievements, a testament to the power of art to transform neighborhoods. Then a painting proposed for Rittenhouse Square ruffled the feathers of the city’s elite — and all hell broke loose

Traub and Weinstock wouldn’t speak on the record for this story, and Virginia Kimmel didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Both Dalto and Shanis (along with everyone else contacted) emphasized that they were friends and supporters of Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Program (Shanis also made a point of praising Paul and Wendy Rosen for their work to improve Rittenhouse Square), but said the process of introducing the mural for neighborhood approval wasn’t handled properly.

“Some people are twisting this to say there’s this elitist group in Rittenhouse Square,” Shanis told me when I reached her on her cell phone in Lucca, Italy. “Well, maybe Rittenhouse Square doesn’t need a mural. But if the decision is made, it should be the voice of the majority of the people who live there.”

Entrepreneur Joe Weiss has lived on the Square in the Dorchester since 2000. He and his wife, city film rep Sharon Pinkenson, are the kind of high-profile, sometimes controversial couple that symbolizes a shift in traditional Rittenhouse Square decorum. As he sat and listened to complaints about the mural that night, Weiss says, “I was disappointed by the elitist attitude I felt was being displayed. I was hearing from people that [murals] are for poor people — black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. ‘This is not something we should have in our neighborhood.’

“My mouth was at my knees,” Weiss adds. “I think the overwhelming majority who live in this area would think that this is a wonderful thing. But a very small, vocal and powerful minority has objected to it.”

Paul Rosen remembers specific phrases used by opponents at the meeting. “Oooh,” he says, “as I repeat them, I get a chill. ‘We should give it to less fortunate, more deserving, less affluent neighborhoods.’ “No one would say the words — ‘Send it to where there are Puerto Rican and black homes.’ The subtle class prejudice was there, and elitist attitudes were there. It was the antithesis of what we’re trying to create with this mural: blind justice for all.”

Elitism aside, a few people thought that Paul Rosen’s allegorical tribute to Justice was actually a thinly disguised advertisement for his law firm. “I can’t imagine that [Paul] would not put his name on it,” says one person who was at the Ethical Society meeting. “That’s a form of advertising and opens the door to other things. The next thing you know, they’ll put up something showing a little boy run over by an automobile or a doctor removing the wrong leg or something like that, and the phone number of some law firm.”

As people took their turns shouting their opposition to the mural, Rosen’s temper mounted. “I stood up and told them what I thought of them,” he remembers. “I told them that anybody who feels that way shouldn’t be our neighbor. They should move out of Rittenhouse Square. I don’t want neighbors who have that prejudice.”

“Carol Shanis started to cry,” says her friend Diane Dalto. “Here’s this huge philanthropist and volunteer. I’ve never heard anyone say a negative thing about her. But it had gotten so ugly. I think it was because of all the yelling and the nastiness — it drove her to tears. That’s really not the way we want it to be here.”

Jane Golden went home from the meeting that night and couldn’t sleep. “I kept waking up and talking to my husband,” she remembers. Finally, she decided: We really need to pull out of this project.