Story by Debbi Casini Klein and WESA staff | Video by Louis D’Aria
If you’re strolling down Arch Avenue on the North Side, you’d be hard-pressed to miss it: a whimsical building with a 40-ft high mural of brilliant butterflies, ladybugs, dinosaurs and more.
It’s Randyland, and it all started a little more than 30 years ago when Randy Gilson moved into the neighborhood.
“I just fell in love with the architecture, but noticed it was rough over here, a lot of empty lots, a lot of garbage,” he said. “It seemed like people weren’t talking, getting along. That’s when I started thinking that I needed to do something myself.”
So Randy dipped into his savings from his part-time job as a waiter and started cleaning up the neighborhood, planting hundreds of mini-gardens and cleaning up the trash.
“I had $1,000, so I decided to take the 1,000 and buy whiskey barrels,” he said. “And I did that and put it in all of the empty houses, with shrubbery and flowers, and magic happened.”
Years later, that magic happened again, when he took out a loan and purchased a dilapidated, abandoned building, turning it into his creative expression of art, a labor of love now known as Randyland.
“By doing street art — 30 blocks of art gardens, 800 gardens, 50 vegetable gardens, eight parks — taught me to recycle, so when I bought this building I thought ‘why not use the same idea,’” Randy said. “Recycle paint, recycle wood, recycle things you find in the alleyways. So I started taking this big building and turning it into a giant exterior art gallery.”
And many in the neighborhood agree, Randyland has made a major impact on the North Side.
“I think what he’s done is he’s created such a great statement about how we care about your houses, architecture, how important it is to maintain the face of your place,” said neighbor Maggie Connor. “It’s such a unique piece of this community, kind of neighborhood asset that generates its own kind of gravity and energy.”
Maggie said she can’t imagine with neighborhood without Randy’s effervescent personality.
“I can personally say that when I bought my house on the street, knowing that Randy was there and that was on that corner, it was a big advantage,” she said.