Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“We want them to convey a sense of home.”
Inside the new Gerard Carter Community Center at the Stapleton Houses, Staten Island’s largest public housing complex, a once-plain brick wall bursts with brightly painted scenes of community life. There’s a cheerful ferry boat, a cake-like baseball stadium bearing the word “HOPE,” and a few distinctively ornate local houses. Primary-colored figures play basketball, and a mighty boxer with “RESPECT” on his belt raises gloved fists.
On a recent Wednesday night, a crew of teenagers and 20-somethings crouched at this wall, busily painting the last touches of this tableau with no small amount of pride.
“People stand here and look at it and think, ‘We do this stuff almost every day,’” Darshawn Murray, an 18-year-old who has lived at Stapleton his entire life, told me in between brushstrokes. “That kind of changes the space, somehow.”
Murray and dozens of other youth residents helped design the mural, with the help of professional artists from the nonprofit public arts organization Groundswell. And they were paid a decent stipend, through $500,000 in public funds, earmarked by New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres as part of his “Public Art/Public Housing” program, in collaboration with Groundswell and the New York City Housing Authority. More than 200 youth across New York City have been recruited as paid “apprentices” to work on 15 murals in public housing developments in all five city boroughs, which were selected based on crime-reduction targets set by the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety.
Another participant, Gabriela Balderas, 22, doesn’t live at Stapleton, but she went to middle school across the street before the community center was overhauled. “This used to be a bad neighborhood with a lot of shooting, a place you didn’t want to be after dark, but a lot has changed,” she told me. “And now it’s even better with the mural, especially because it faces the windows. Even when it’s night out, you can see it from outside. It’s like an art gallery.”
Many young people living in public housing don’t have consistent access to creative outlets or means of employment. This initiative, which will continue through the summer, seeks to address that problem. The research and design of the murals, which went on for weeks earlier this year, also served as a forum for discussing ideas and themes most meaningful to young residents.
“The experience of public housing speaks to our political moment, the theme of ‘black lives matter,’” Councilman Torres told The Observer in January. “I would argue that at no other time has there been a deeper disregard for the lives of black and brown people in public housing. How else do you explain the decades of savage disinvestment from public housing at every level of government?”
One mural at Queensbridge Houses in Queens heavily references Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. At one end of a mural at Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, black activists are portrayed with mega-phones in hand.
Of course, no matter how beautiful or stirring, these murals are not solutions to the “savage disinvestment” to which Torres refers. The New York City Housing Authority faces no end of problems, including a funding crisis at headquarters and rampant toxic mold and fatal safety flaws in its developments. The murals are but a few patches of bright paint inside what can be bleak environments. But in the eyes of a few young residents, that might be enough to improve residents’ quality of life, if even by a little.
“Most people who live here don’t like Stapleton,” Devin Williams, a 19-year-old apprentice in his second year of residence at Stapleton, told me. “But when you see that painting, we hope it changes people’s opinion. That people can look at this and say, ‘This is where I live.’ We want it to convey a sense of home.”