The Public Likes (and Respects) Public Art

I spent a day recently in Newark, NJ, and was surprised–and pleased–to see murals wherever I went. Not only were the images and the stories they told captivating, it was wonderful to see that they hadn’t been defaced with graffiti. To me, this speaks to the respect people have for public art. When politicians oppose money for the arts, they should consider the power of public murals to bring beauty and instill community pride. And while pols may think that funding art is a lower priority than, say, funding police departments, they should consider that the lack of graffiti reflects the public’s appreciation of the form. Or they can look at research, which has shown “the great power of public art to influence how we move, think and feel in city environments.”


Murals of Brownsville, Brooklyn

I spent the day in Brownsville and had a chance to visit some of the amazing murals created by teenagers in collaboration with Groundswell and other partners, including the Brownsville Community Justice Center. I was told that people often stop and photograph them, which is understandable, since they’re so breathtaking, eye-catching, and each has a story to tell. I figured there was no reason why I shouldn’t take my own photos as well.

Past, Present & Future of Brownsville, Brooklyn

My day job brought me to Brownsville, Brooklyn, today, where I met several life-long residents who shared stories about the neighborhood, past, present and future.

Among the people I met was a grandmother, who talked about learning to swim and sew at the Brownsville Recreation Center and playing games and going to dances at the various community centers in the local housing projects. In those days, anyone could go to any of the community centers, but today, many of the community centers have closed, and those that remain offer fewer activities. Worst of all, the projects where they are housed are divided by rivalries, so that it’s no longer safe for “outsiders” (i.e., someone from another housing project) to walk through them. Projects have their own gangs, or “teams” as one person called them, which zealously guard their territories.

Only a few places are considered neutral, like the Recreation Center and the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which many hope is in the process of inspiring change. The Justice Center has created innovative programs for youth, including art and design workshops, a peer-led youth court and job preparation. The Justice Center is actively trying to change the narrative of Brownsville from the one fueled by media, which habitually portrays the neighborhood as a place of high crime, high poverty, and dense public housing, to one that emphasizes its strengths, like its large, supportive family networks, its many citizens who care deeply about its future, and the vast potential of the its young people, who eagerly grab onto any positive social or learning activity whenever it is offered.

The mural above is the result of one of those activities. Located at the Brownsville Student Farm Project, the mural was created jointly by young people under the supervision of the Groundswell Community Mural Project and Brownsville Community Justice Center. It’s one of several murals they’ve helped young people bring to fruition throughout the community.

This little toy was minding its own business on a window ledge outside one of the Justice Center’s offices.