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Poem 'I want a president' comes to brick wall in Old Goucher neighborhood in Baltimore

"I want a president," an artwork by Zoe Leonard, is on the side of a building at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and 23rd Street.
"I want a president," an artwork by Zoe Leonard, is on the side of a building at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and 23rd Street. (Christina Tkacik)

James Smith’s eyes scanned the lines of the text pasted on the side of a red brick building in Baltimore.

“Oh, snap,” he said, halfway through. “Okay. It’s gonna get deep.”

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The poem, entitled “I want a president,” was written in 1992, by the artist Zoe Leonard on the occasion of her friend Eileen Myles’s announcement that she — an artist with no health insurance — would be running against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. It interweaves biographical details with political commentary, creating a plea for a president “that had an abortion at sixteen” and who “isn’t the lesser of two evils.”

And since January 20, the poem has been on the side of a building in Old Goucher.

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Smith, a 25 year-old artist and poet who lives in the neighborhood, was into it.

“It’s beautiful, it’s art,” he said.

The poem contains some offensive language — most applied to LGBT people, but in the service of advocating for them to have a place at the table.

Zoe Leonard wrote the poem "I want a president" in 1992.
Zoe Leonard wrote the poem "I want a president" in 1992. (Christina Tkacik)

Though the poem was written in 1992, “It feels like it could have just been written last week,” said Kelly Cross, President of the Old Goucher Community Association, which brought the artwork to the neighborhood. The piece was unveiled on Jan. 20 — the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration — and will be up for two months, said Cross.

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It’s just the first of a planned series of public art installations planned in Old Goucher: Cross wants to turn “the neighborhood itself into a museum.” The idea first came to him when he was in Venice and met the artist Mark Bradford.

“The public just is not going to museums the way they used to,” he said, and public art is “one of the best ways to bring art back into peoples’ lives in this city.” Cross, who previously ran for Baltimore’s city council, said he hopes this particular piece will “jolt people into a recognition that establishment politics have to change.”

In 2016, “I want a president” was displayed in New York’s High Line park, underneath The Standard Hotel, where it was viewed by thousands of people each day and garnered stories in Vice and The Huffington Post.

But on a cold day in Baltimore, high up on a wall on 23rd Street, many walked by without even noticing. A few were willing to stop, and to read: One was Daniel Alampi, a homeless man who lives in the area.

“It’s honest,” he said. “We’ve never had a president that’s anything like that up there.”

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