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Painting the Past

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Khali Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it.

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Kahli Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it. (Photos by Mark Murray)

Kahli Hernandez descended the wall, stood back, and reflected on his long day’s work.

“This mural is more than just a mural because of the things that are associated and attached to it,” said Hernandez, a local painter who got involved with the mural painting at 241 Worthington St., facing Stearns Square. “A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

The idea for a new mural reflecting Springfield’s history came about almost a decade ago when Union Station was about to be completed and the area around Duryea Way had just been revamped. Evan Plotkin, president and CEO of NAI Plotkin Commercial Real Estate, has been a key player in the mural’s conception and production.

The finished work, formally unveiled during the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival on Aug. 12, restores the wall’s faded 1950s advertising art to vibrant life.

“John Simpson and I have been involved with most of the things that are public-art-related downtown, one way or another,” he said, noting that he and Simpson, a noted local artist, co-founded both the Springfield Cultural Council and City Mosaic, a nonprofit with the goal of changing lives and bringing people together, as well as changing the direction and conversation about Springfield from negative perceptions to something positive.

“There would be no City Mosaic without John Simpson. We formed it because we thought we could transform this city. We don’t want people to be afraid to come to downtown Springfield. We want people to enjoy what’s down here,” Plotkin said. “I think this is making a huge contribution of immense proportions. This is a gathering space down here. Everyone should be able to come and enjoy good food and good drinks with the company of friends.”

Through a movement called tactical urbanism, Plotkin and Simpson are trying to reignite a sense of community in the downtown business district. Tactical urbanism, also known as DIY urbanism, is all about action — an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change.

“A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

A two-year study released by researchers from the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania revealed a relationship between the presence of cultural resources in a neighborhood and key aspects of social well-being, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods.

Specifically, low- and middle-income residents with more access to cultural resources experience better education, security, and health outcomes compared to residents of neighborhoods with similar economic profiles, but with fewer cultural resources.

When controlling for factors including economic status, race, and ethnicity, the higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is linked with several health, safety, and education benefits. These include a 14% decrease in indicted investigations of child abuse and neglect, an 18% decrease in felony crime rate, and also an 18% increase in the number of students scoring at the highest level on standardized math and English tests.

“I think art is really transformative for a lot of things,” Plotkin said. “It’s transformative to people and their spirits — whether it be visual art or music, art is beauty, and it helps change people.”

Simpson added that “there’s a woman that lives on this street that has told me she’s seen people stopping in the parking lot to look at the mural — they linger a little and take photos. She thinks it’s good because everyone is really excited to see the finished product, too.”

 

‘Puzzle of Ghost Images’

Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst, said he was flooded with ideas for the mural when sitting with the City Mosaic council. He told BusinessWest there were plenty of ideas about historical figures and events showing Springfield’s pride, but the wall had a different idea, in the form of faded vintage advertisements.

“I said, ‘yeah, I know you want all of this stuff on the wall, but there are also the ads. We want to restore some of them, so I reserve the right to do whatever I want here,’” Simpson said. “When I started, I felt like the wall was going to dictate what it should be. So whatever can be saved, will be saved. Then we thought there was so little to be saved, but eventually, when you get one thing, you’d start to see another.”

He explained the process: research and stare. Then relax. Simpson compared the mural to a “puzzle of ghost images” they were hoping would fall into place. It was beyond the scope of his usual work, but he took it all in and got to work.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

“We got addicted to finding what was there previously and recreating it,” he said. “Evan encouraged me to work on the design. I tried to keep changing it, but it led me here. There has been such great teamwork that it feels like only one person is working on it.”

Artist Susan Riano was also impressed by the work that has gone into the mural on Worthington Street.

“Going in, we all thought it would be a huge project, but we didn’t let the thought of getting overwhelmed bother us. We just went at it and things went pretty naturally, organically. Looking at it now is kind of crazy, but amazing to see how much we were able to accomplish through the whole process,” she said. “It was really cool to see the work of another artist and figure out their process, and see the way they did things — it was a learning experience for us as well.”

Some of the images painted on the wall are meant to represent Springfield and its community through the years. For instance, Simpson and the artists painted a Rolls-Royce with Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s, driving it.

When community members see themselves reflected in social spaces, they feel a sense of respect, ultimately allowing for people to identify with the place they are from, live in, or are visiting. Cultural assets are part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes well-being.

Simpson told BusinessWest about another mural he had worked on and how it connects to his overall goal. “It says, ‘there’s no place like Springfield’ because there is no place like home. That’s for every kid to think about, instead of things they’re hearing from other towns. Springfield is home — there’s history here with beautiful people, art, and architecture.”

Khali Hernandez puts the final touches

Kahli Hernandez puts the final touches on one of the mural’s small sections.

Plotkin agreed. “Springfield has an incredible history. To have something as big and beautiful as this spurs the imagination of those bygone days and recognizes a city that was once another Springfield.

“I think that’s why I do it,” he went on. “John is the artist, and I think that I wouldn’t be able to do what he does; physically, I don’t have the talent. I just really get off on the impact it has on the community and the responses people are giving. I’ve lived and worked here for many, many years. I’ve seen some great times here, and I’ve seen some bad times here when the city wasn’t flourishing as much. We’re on the rise again, and we’re coming back strong. This is going to help us reach the point where we have a commercially viable district here. We want to recreate that.”

 

Tapestry Through Time

Clearly, the mural on Worthington Street is more than just a mural. It is a physical representation of what Springfield has to offer, and a reminder that the past impacts the future, and the future always reflects the past.

“We want the wall to show a little bit of the past, some of the present, and eventually the future,” Hernandez said as he surveyed his day’s work. “It’s a tribute to the overarching narrative that is a part of Springfield.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News


SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber has named Evan Plotkin, president, and owner of NAI Samuel D. Plotkin and Associates, as its 2022 Richard J. Moriarty Citizen of the Year. The award, established in 2007, is given annually to honor the memory of Richard J. Moriarty, a long-time active participant in the Chamber and individual who gave his time, talent, and personal and professional resources to the local community. 

“Evan reminds me of Rick in so many ways,” said Patrick Leary, who helped establish the award and was Rick’s partner at Moriarty & Primack, P.C., now MP CPAs. “Evan’s involvement in the community and its prosperity was evident both during his personal and professional relationship with Rick when they sat on the Board of Directors for the Center for Human Development. Just like Rick, Evan is involved in the community not because it is something that is expected of him, but because he believes it is the right thing to do.” Leary continued, “Like Rick, much of his involvement is done quietly without seeking accolades or recognition. I think Rick would be very pleased with Evan as our Citizen of the Year.” 

Plotkin will be honored at the Springfield Regional Chamber’s Annual Meeting and Celebration on June 15, from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Springfield Sheraton. In addition to honoring Plotkin, the chamber will recognize the graduates of its 2022 Leadership Institute, commemorate outgoing President Nancy Creed, and welcome incoming Chamber President Diana Szynal.  

Longtime advocate and champion of Springfield, Plotkin has made it his mission to make the city a more attractive place to live and work, both literally and figuratively. A Springfield native, he is one of the lead organizers of the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival and is the force behind Art & Soles, the project that saw sculptures of colorful sneakers placed around the city. Additionally, Plotkin, named a Difference Maker by BusinessWest spearheaded the City Mosaic project, overseeing the conversion of the ninth floor of 1350 Main St. into what’s known as Studio 9, a community gathering space. By also using the front lobby of 1350 Main St. as a gallery space, he forged a partnership with artist James Kitchen to bring many of his metal sculptures to the downtown area. 

Plotkin was also a catalyst behind bringing art to life on Court House Walk, one of the city’s most charming landmarks that was restored by the Junior League of Greater Springfield in 1979. The walk brought giant murals into fruition on the Court Square property with images of iconic celebrities such as Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and others. 

Plotkin’s involvement with the community has given him the opportunity to serve as a member of the board of directors for many organizations throughout the years, including as the chairman of The Center for Human Development, and as a board member for various civic organizations including Holyoke Community College and Springfield Business Improvement District. Additionally, Plotkin served six years on the SRC’s board and was a longstanding active board member of the former Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Plotkin was an instrumental part of the group that launched the SRC’s economic development tools in 2021, helping businesses and developers recognize and understand key indicators that encourage informed business decisions.  

When he’s not beautifying or enhancing Springfield through his artistic endeavors and volunteer initiatives, he’s assisting in its revitalization through his company, NAI Plotkin, which services commercial real estate in areas such as property management, consulting, construction management, condo/HOA management, and brokerage services. Plotkin’s portfolio includes the management of more than 6 million square feet of commercial and retail space and approximately two million square feet of residential units with clients ranging from institutional to regional in scope and include such entities as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, the U.S. Postal Service, and Staples, Inc. Through his role as president, Plotkin serves on the NAI Asset Services Council along with 30 other esteemed members globally, encouraging a collective wealth of knowledge, including best practices and new technology for effective property management.  

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber shared her admiration for Plotkin by stating, “His steadfast efforts to enhance Springfield even in the face of tribulation, including the pandemic and his battle with cancer, are inspiring. He continues to navigate challenges with great leadership and poise — consistently showcasing his remarkable strength as a community leader.”  

Reservations for the Annual Meeting and Celebration are $75 for members in advance, and $85 for general admission. Reservations may be made online at the Annual Meeting webpage or by contacting Nancy Creed at [email protected]. 

Commercial Real Estate

Fighting the Fight

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says a mural planned for this wall near Stearns Square will pay homage to that area’s important role in Springfield’s history.

Evan Plokin was joking — well, sort of — about just how well his team seemed to manage while he was home battling mesothelioma and rehabbing from complicated surgery to help rid his body of cancer.

“I learned that this place could function just fine without me,” he said, tongue in cheek, noting that his company, NAI Plotkin, completed several deals during those weeks while he was out, putting a cap on a busy year, despite damage done to the economy by the pandemic. “The four months I was pretty much out of action I was thinking the worst, but when I came back, all the deals that were in the pipeline that I thought were never going to close … things suddenly started to happen.”

Overall, this lengthy, ongoing ordeal — he was officially diagnosed with mesothelioma in March 2021 — has been a learning experience on many levels, starting with the disease itself.

Plotkin confessed to knowing little about it when he was diagnosed, other than the only way to be stricken with it is through prolonged exposure to asbestos — or, as he has learned since, through heavy use of talc. And a “review of his life’s story,” as he called it, revealed that he falls into that category.

“I had rashes when I was a youngster, throughout my elementary schools, and I can always remember my grandmother putting the powder on me,” he recalled. “As I got into sports, when I would sweat a lot, I would break out, and the baby powder helped. And I remember when I was playing football in high school, I would douse my shoulder pads with it before every practice and before every game.”

This review of his life and has led to a different kind of learning experience, this one concerning ongoing legal action against Johnson & Johnson — maker of the baby powder he put on those shoulder pads — which he is now a big part of.

“I’m on the creditor’s committee — we just had a meeting recently; five of us are representing 40,000 claimants in this litigation,” he said, noting that these claimants are pushing back hard on J&J’s efforts to form a separate company to capture all asbestos claims related to its baby powder and then, presumably, file bankruptcy. “Every one of us who has this disease wants our day in court, and not have this piled into a bankruptcy settlement.”

While waging battles on these various fronts, Plotkin, who firmly believes he’s on the road to recovery and is now back in his office several days a week, is continuing another fight — his decades-long struggle to return downtown Springfield to the vibrancy he knew when he was young.

Long a staunch advocate for the city and firm believer in the power of the arts as an economic-development strategy — he’s one of the organizers of the annual summer jazz festival in the city — Plotkin said considerable progress has been made in recent years to make Springfield a more attractive place to live and work, but there is still much to be done.

He talked about the need to become creative with the hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant office space in the city (again, see the story on page 38), to renew and escalate efforts to revitalize the properties on Main Street across from MGM Springfield, and to continue work to use the city’s open spaces, especially its parks, to draw new residents — and businesses as well.

With that, he turned his attention to his latest project, a giant mural that will occupy a wall facing Stearns Square on Worthington Street.

Working in tandem with John Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst whose murals grace Elm Street and the I-91 viaduct, as well as the Springfield Improvement District, Plotkin, through a nonprofit he created called City Mosaic, won a grant to transform that wall — currently featuring faded images of cameras and related products sold at a store there in the 1940s — into a history book of sorts.

“It’s going to be a composition — we’re going to give a nod to many of the historic and important people from Springfield, right up to the present,” he said. “It’s going to be the largest mural in the city.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Plotkin about the many battles he’s waging, and the progress he’s making with what could be considered the big picture — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

Joining the Battle

Plotkin, who has long prided himself on taking good care of his body, exercising, and eating the right foods, said his cancer diagnosis nearly a year ago caught him off guard and left him searching for answers.

“To suddenly be told that you have this terrible disease … that was very traumatic,” he said, adding that, while he became consumed with understanding how he contracted mesothelioma, the more immediate concern was confronting the disease.

He underwent what is known as a HIPEC (hyperthermic chemotherapy) procedure in August. After removing visible tumors through standard surgical procedures, a surgeon will administer HIPEC treatment, during which a heated sterile solution — containing a chemotherapeutic agent — is continuously circulated throughout the peritoneal cavity for up to two hours.

The 10-hour procedure was followed by three months of rehabilitation, said Plotkin, noting that he lost more than 50 pounds through the ordeal, suffered a few setbacks while recovering, and endured a few trips to the emergency room.

But he believes the worst is over and that he is on the road to recovery.

“I’m feeling really good right now, so I’m very optimistic about my future,” he said. “I feel almost as good as I did before the surgery; I just have to watch it … but I’m back to normal, and everything is good for me.”

While knocking on the nearest available wood, Plotkin noted there isn’t much available data on HIPEC. “And the doctors and the oncologists — they don’t have any predictions for you,” he went on. “They just say they want to take film every six months and go from there.”

Meanwhile, he said many others in his situation have not been as fortunate in their fight.

“You hear some of the stories from some of the people you meet, and their stories are not as good. I just learned about a 28-year-old boy who had the surgery who died from complications — kidney problems after the surgery.”

Such stories put more emphasis on the ongoing lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, which, by many accounts, involve more than 38,000 claimants and nearly $4 billion in damages being sought.

At present, that fight is on a pause of sorts after a bankruptcy judge in North Carolina halted the lawsuits against J&J after that company formed a subsidiary in Texas, known as LTL, to absorb the parent company’s asbestos liabilities. LTL promptly filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina.

The move, known as a ‘divisive merger’ as well as a ‘Texas two-step’ (because that’s where LTL was formed) has been slammed by lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Plotkin said claimants in the various suits are girding for a protracted battle.

“Everyone is lawyering up, and they’re ready to have hearings,” he said. “All this is going to be hopefully resolved, one way or another, in February.”

While the court fight against J&J is now capturing some of Plotkin’s time, he also has his work — a broad phrase, to be sure — keeping him busy.

He said he worked remotely for some time but is now back in his office at 1350 Main St., the one with the view facing south toward MGM Springfield. And he referenced what he can see out his window when talking about the major challenges still facing Springfield.

He said that, when MGM was originally proposed, the thinking — if not the promise — was that the casino, with its front door on Main Street, would bring more vibrancy, not to mention additional commercial development, to both sides of the street and that broad area.

That hasn’t happened yet, in part because most all casino visitors have been entering and exiting through the parking garage (especially during the pandemic), leaving little foot traffic on Main Street and, therefore, a minimal trickle-down effect.

“People go right back in the garage, and they’re out of here,” he said. “And that needs to be fixed; we need to get those people into the downtown.”

Turning his attention back to Stearns Square, he said that area has seen progress on several fronts in recent years, including the park itself, which underwent major restoration efforts a few years ago. Around it are new businesses, including Dewey’s, a jazz club; the promise of new restaurants; and prospects for that area once again being the centerpiece of a walkable city.

The new mural will be part of all this, he said, adding that it will turn back the clock in many respects.

“In one part of the mural, there’s going to be an image of what Stearns Square looked like more than 100 years ago,” he explained, noting that this look back will show how the ‘Puritan’ statue now at the corner of Chestnut and State streets near the Quadrangle was originally in Stearns Square, with the Puritan facing a globe at the turtle fountain in the south end of the park.

“The narrative behind that is the fountain has a giant globe on it with fish and turtles around it, and there’s water,” he explained. “It was the Puritan looking at the new world, and he knew he had to cross over the water to get there.”

 

Body of Evidence

As he related the history of the park and spoke about his mural project, Plotkin said he’s always believed the Puritan statue should return to its original setting.

He admits he’s probably not alone with that view, but he acknowledges that such a move would certainly be a longshot at this point and an uphill battle.

Speaking of uphill battles … he’s been involved with many of them lately, from his fight against mesothelioma to the drawn-out court skirmishes with Johnson & Johnson, to his campaign to revitalize downtown Springfield.

All of them are ongoing to one extent or another, and Plotkin is waging them the only way he knows how: with passion and determination.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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