The great cover-up: Minneapolis takes a page from Gary, Indiana

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Can make-believe really make you believe? Can a boarded house painted to look as though it isn’t make you buy the house next door? According to a story in Saturday’s Strib, the city of Minneapolis is banking on it.

A few weeks ago we reported on the gray plywood covering the windows of more than 570 homes on the North Side. Gray is a signature of the city — an indicator that a home has been abandoned and city contractors have had to wall it off from trespassers with boards the color of overcast skies. Now the Strib is reporting that those boards might be canvases for works of art as the city scrambles to find a way to stave off the blight and burden created by the growing number of vacant homes. The city with the best solution so far? Gary, Ind.

Minneapolis city officials are looking to Chicago artist Chris Toepfer to prettify the increasing number of bleak boards adorning the homes throughout the city. Toepfer has already painted the boards on two homes and a church on James Avenue. The church is outfitted with boards painted to look like stained glass.

Toepfer first gained national attention when he created murals — or more accurately, facades — on abandoned buildings in Gary when the city hosted the Miss U.S.A. pageant in 2001. He made an empty old theater look as though it sold tickets. Then in 2002 he created the Gary Mural Project, which sought to re-create storefronts on abandoned shops along Broadway, a busy street in that city. In some ways Toepfer is painting a one-dimensional future, storybook images of what could be in a city currently fractured by poverty.

Minneapolis pays its contractors $60 to $100 to board homes, and it pays the fee again when homes are broken into and boards need to be replaced. The city says it hopes to save money in the long run by using Toepfer’s painted boards, many of which will be designed by local artists. Neighborhood organizations will monitor the artist-created boards’ effects on home sales and crime during a summer-long pilot project beginning this June.

Our secret hope? Maybe they can paint flowers and leaves and songbirds on the city landscape to make it look as though November doesn’t last a lifetime ’round these parts. And we have a couple of suggestions for a new state motto: “Minnesota: Land of 10,000 fakes” or “Minnesota: Our abandoned homes are better than yours.”