Can Murals Change a Neighborhood?

In New York's Brownsville community, a large-scale art project aims to do more than just beautify. 

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"Brownsville Moving Forward" is at one of the neighborhood's central intersections, where Pitkin Avenue crosses Mother Gaston Boulevard. (Sarah Goodyear)

The B14 bus sighed to a stop on Mother Gaston Boulevard in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Inside, a teenage girl turned in her seat to gaze idly out of the window. Then her eye fell on something worth looking at: the new mural painted on the side of a building at the corner of Mother Gaston and Pitkin Avenue. “Brownsville Moving Forward,” it reads in tall, bold letters, woven through with images of the neighborhood’s heroes and its aspirations.

From the sidewalk, Patrick Dougher watched the girl as she studied the painting, which looked so fresh it might still have been wet. Dougher is the program director of Groundswell, a nonprofit organization that creates murals all around New York City with teams of artists and young apprentices. “That’s what I love about where this one is,” says Dougher. “It’s a bus stop. Think how many hundreds of people are going to see it every day.”

Visibility is key for Groundswell’s projects, and its work in Brownsville—a neighborhood most often tagged with words such as “tough” and “troubled”—is no exception. The vivid image on the wall on that corner is the most outward expression of the positive effect that Groundswell hopes to have on this perennially underserved community, home to more public housing projects than any other New York neighborhood and plagued by a persistently high crime rate. One in 12 young Brownsville men between the ages of 16 and 24 is in prison.

The work began last year when Groundswell, in partnership with the NYC Department of Probation and the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District, won a National Endowment for the Arts grant of  $100,000 for “Transform/Restore: Brownsville.” The two-year project will ultimately create five new murals in Brownsville, enlisting crews of young people to come up with the concepts for the art, design the murals to fit the allotted spaces, and then make them a reality. Some of the youth, who work under the supervision of Groundswell artists, are on probation, while others are Groundswell veterans who were originally referred to the program by teachers or community organizations. About 40 probationers will be involved by project’s end.

The goal: to beautify the neighborhood with art that has meaning for the community, while at the same time employing and engaging young New Yorkers and giving them a constructive environment in which to express themselves.

Clockwise from top left: 1. A tribute to the work of Max Fleischer, a seminal cartoonist of the early 20th century and the creator of Betty Boop, who grew up in Brownsville; the barbershop has always been an important gathering place for the neighborhood. 2. Mother Gaston was a Brownsville community organizer and educator who founded Heritage House, a place where the neighborhood's young people could go to learn about their ethnic heritage. 3. The Sankofa bird is a symbol drawn from the African tradtion, symbolizing the importance of looking back to and learning from the past. 4. Greg "Jocko" Jackson was for many years director of the Brownsville Recreation Center and was considered the unofficial mayor of Brownsville before his sudden death from a heart attack in 2012. (Sarah Goodyear)

Groundswell was founded in 1996 with the goal of using collaborative public art projects to improve neighborhoods and the lives of the city’s young people. Since then, it has created more than 450 murals in 75 neighborhoods around the city. Some 800 youth, mostly between 14 and 21, now work on Groundswell projects each year.

Most are students in the city’s public school system, and come from working-class or low-income families. Some are referred for community service from the criminal justice system. “We’ve been working with court-involved youth for at least eight years now,” says Amy Sananman, Groundswell’s executive director. “It’s a continuum. We work with kids before they get in trouble, kids at risk, kids who are sentenced to us.”

Vincent Schiraldi, who was commissioner of the probation department under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is now senior adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office of criminal justice, spoke enthusiastically about probation’s involvement with Groundswell last fall as the project got underway. Schiraldi, who decentralized probation offices during his tenure as commissioner to increase local involvement and decision-making, said his goal was to “bolster people’s assets” and engage with probationers in a positive rather than punitive way.

“You always know what you want to achieve,” he told me last October. "You want people to turn their lives around and give back to the community they damaged with their crime.”

The arts, he believes, can be a great avenue for that, and projects like the Groundswell murals can have a special power. The walls are all donated by local businesses that have a very real stake in seeing the young people who work on them succeed. “We try to re-engage our clients with the natural community controls that are going to be out there the rest of their lives,” said Schiraldi. “Now that businessman doesn’t just see them as a scary person in a North Face jacket. Maybe he’ll hire them.”

One of the new Brownsville murals by Groundswell, representing the neighborhood's "hidden treasures." (Sarah Goodyear)

The first two murals in the Brownsville project were conceived during the winter by groups of 10 to 15 youth working with lead artist Chris Soria. One has the theme “Hidden Treasures,” and is painted in rich earth tones. It contains images of people planting and watering trees and caring for family members. “It’s about the talents that people don’t realize that they have until they do it,” says Soria.

The “Brownsville Moving Forward” piece is a riff on an old-fashioned “Welcome to Brownsville” postcard theme, and it has transformed a wall that was dull and lifeless before. The mural prominently features the faces of neighborhood heroes Mother Gaston, a community organizer and educator, and Greg “Jocko” Johnson, a pillar of the community whose premature death from a heart attack in 2012 is still spoken of with deep sadness on Brownsville’s streets.

Sean Turner, an experienced Groundswell youth leader who lives just a couple of blocks from here, has served as a mentor on the project. “When we were putting it up, people were getting off the bus and saying it was amazing,” says the 26-year-old . He points to the barbershop across the street, which has a perfect view of the mural. “It’s something great to look at when they’re in the barber’s chair,” he says.

As with any large-scale collaborative effort, creating the murals has hit some bumps along the way. The logistics of finding adequate work space over the winter were tough, and there were some creative differences as well. That’s all part of it. "It’s an intense process,” says Dougher, looking up at the finished piece. “An entirely rewarding process.”

“To be able to come together with a couple of artists and create is great,” says Turner, with a  huge smile. “I love art, so to me, it’s fun. It’s enjoyable. To me, it’s life. Art is life for me.”

 

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.