Murals change face of neighborhood

With his long, muscular arms soaked with the summer sun, and little splotches of paint still drying on his fingers, Dennis McDaniel has done the impossible.

He has created a forest in the middle of downtown Bremerton without planting a single tree.

For the last two summers, McDaniel has moiled on an extensive mural on the back of 7-Eleven and an adjacent building at Sixth Street and Park Avenue.

Partly with the help of other local artists.

He has also participated in a neighborhood transformation, in which drunks have become policemen.

In June 2001, local artist Amy Burnett worked on a board to raise $15,000 for McDaniel and several other artists to begin work on two sides of a garment company building downtown.

The “Forest Murals of Bremerton” project was intended to transport the city back in time to a period when there were more trees than people. And to replace an area notorious for filth and crime with art.

It took two months and six local artists to complete it.

This summer, Burnett enlisted McDaniel to paint the forest scene onto another building, this time on the back of 7-Eleven, just feet from her porch.

Before he started last June, a couch and chair sat against the wall, and vagrants drank beer and shot up drugs there at night.

Prostitutes would regularly work the area, and people urinated on the wall.

When he started putting initial coats on the wall, he watched the homeless walk through the alley to buy beer at 7-Eleven.

After a while, they started approaching him, sometimes for spare change, and other times to talk about the art.

McDaniel started taking their pictures next to the mural, and they would come back and ask for copies to show their friends.

“The drunks called me ‘brother’ and offered me free breakfast at the Salvation Army,” McDaniel recalled.

One of them was curious.

“First he asked me ‘Why are you doing this back here?’ ” Before McDaniel could answer, the man answered, “Oh, I know, because it’s the worst neighborhood in Bremerton.”

Some of the homeless look at the mural and ask themselves what they are doing that is significant like that, McDaniel said. He sometimes suggests they pick up a brush or pen.

They have also adopted the wall. When a tagger came to spray the mural a few weeks ago, one of the drunks told him not to, and recommended the dumpster instead.

In the last two years, two other artists have bought houses in the neighborhood, and everyone is working to crack down on crime.

Burnett has called police officers, written petitions and called Mayor Cary Bozeman about the prostitution and homelessness.

After analyzing the statistics, Police Chief Rob Forbes said the murals have not deterred crime, but they have improved the look of the area.

“It looks like they are making a much better effort to keep the neighborhood clean,” said Irmgard Davis, who works at Kitsap Community Resources across the street.

She said the neighborhood has changed drastically in the past year, and she is no longer bothered by people asking for change at 6 a.m. in the morning. She also said she doesn’t see prostitutes any more.

The view isn’t bad either.

“Even on a rainy day you look out your window and you feel like you’re right in the middle of a forest,” she said.

People often jump out of their cars and thank McDaniel for the work he has done. They tell him it reminds them of vacations they have taken or towns they have once lived in.

“I feel what I’m doing is a donation to the community. It’s value is inestimable,” McDaniel said.

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