When your back wall faces a busy urban thoroughfare, what do you do with it?
Most people do nothing. They leave bare block.
But one couple who owns property along East Broadway views their back wall as a canvas for political messages.
You might enjoy their wall as a break in the cinder-block monotony, or as a sign of robust political speech. Or you might view it as an annoying imposition, especially if you disagree with their politics.
“My child is an honor student. My governor is a lunatic,” is what’s painted on the wall now, below smaller lettering that says, “Support public education.” Many people wrongly assume that Betts Putnam-Hidalgo is the owner, because the wall sported a campaign message for her when she ran for TUSD school board last year.
Putnam-Hidalgo does paint the wall sometimes — this current message is her handiwork — but it isn’t her wall. When I arrived on their street, which parallels Broadway, Monday evening to identify the owners, I was surprised to realize when they drove up that I knew them already.
Joy Soler and Paul Gattone, well-known Tucson leftists who also own Revolutionary Grounds coffee house on North Fourth Avenue, own the house and the notorious wall. A couple of times, police or other officials have stopped to talk to them about it.
“It’s our wall, and it’s protected speech,” Gattone, an attorney, told me.
They started using the wall as a political signboard years ago. They think the first time was about a decade ago, when the Legislature was discussing making English Arizona’s official language, a proposal they opposed.
People noticed it more last fall, when they advertised their support for Putnam-Hidalgo’s candidacy. In fact, Tucson police detectives stopped by after the election and asked if it was graffiti they wanted painted over, Soler said. She was home with a sick child, in no mood for the visit, and quickly sent the officers on their way, she said.
Later, Soler said, she and Putnam-Hidalgo were talking politics and someone brought up a slogan used against Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin: “My child is an honor student, my governor is a moron.”
They decided to try that one out, except, to avoid being too insulting, they changed it to “My child is an honor student, my governor is not.”
There are two funny things about that. One is that Gattone and Soler have a child who isn’t even old enough to go to school and is definitely not an honor student yet. The other is that a parent complained that she drove by the sign every day with her child who is not an honor student, and she worried it made the child feel bad.
“We didn’t want it to be offensive,” Soler said. But, she added, they decided that, “if people are going to be offended by something so watered down, let’s say what we want to say.”
That’s when they decided to call Gov. Doug Ducey a lunatic.
“Our governor says he believes in the value of education,” Soler said. “Then he finds every opportunity to undermine it.”
Of course, I largely agree with her on that issue, and I’m sure many of the people who drive by do also. But I can’t help but also feel that the blunt message on the wall is an imposition on my mental space. And I can’t imagine how grating it must be if you disagree with it.
Free speech? Sure. A good idea? Maybe not.
Monday night, I talked to both of the neighbors across Broadway who have the most direct view of the wall. Neither of them wanted their full names used because they don’t want to get involved in neighborhood disputes. And neither of them like it.
One said he finds it obnoxious that he has to see the wall every time he sits down for dinner and looks out the window. The other told me she simply didn’t like seeing such a negative message day after day.
The thing that struck me is that using your wall that way invites others to do the same, though none of the other 15 or so properties in that stretch between Alvernon Way and Columbus Boulevard have joined the fray. And as strong as your message might be, theirs might be stronger and cruder. It would be First Amendment-protected speech, after all.
“It was our intention to get people to think, maybe provoke dissent, not be crude or stupid,” Gattone told me, glancing at Soler. “I’m crude and stupid sometimes, but she’s not.”
Of course, each of us will be the judge of what’s crude and stupid. I’m sure some Broadway drivers feel they’ve already got there.
Contact columnist Tim Steller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter