May 2, 2015

Art with the Police

A project I just completed in my home town, Flint, Michigan, (though I still live in Brooklyn) has a very indirect relationship to the news for the past two weeks from Baltimore.

The night Mark Baldwin and I went on the first site visit for the Sarvis Park Art Parade, we met Aaron Turner, who was watching his kids at the basketball court in Sarvis Park. He put us in touch with his brother Jermaine and another friend, Cory Pulliam, all in their early 30s; they had all adopted the park and were keeping it clean. The next night there was a deadly shooting with a rifle a couple of blocks away on Clio Road. That Sunday I went to all of the neighborhood churches, including a humbling experience speaking to the congregation at the Blackwell AME Church, with its sublime gospel choir.

That week I started developing concepts with Oaklin Mixon, and Catie Newell and Anca Trandafirescu. Oaklin and I met the Sarvis Park group and walked the parade route, identifying houses and handing out postcards. We passed one tiny house filled with about a dozen young teens, with a grandmother sitting on the porch. I said, what's up with that house? One of the guys said, "That's called poverty."

We put together a plan, Oaklin designed the installations, and we went into production with the guys from Sarvis Park, who we agreed to pay to help us cutting and painting boards at the Neighborhood Engagement Hub and installing them on site.

After a nonstop two weeks of work that included another project at the nearby Welch Avenue business strip with Ben Gaydos, working in cooperation with Michigan State troopers and city of Flint Police Department through their Light Up the City community policing initiative, which tries to build relationships between the police and communities, the Sarvis Park Art Parade event brought everyone together to walk through the neighborhood as a gesture of celebration and reclaiming the streets, with the Flint police chief joining us and leading chants with the young kids.

Yesterday, before flying back home, I went to photograph the finished houses. Along the parade route, I saw elementary school kids waiting for school buses in front of buildings painted with beautiful conceptual art works instead of vacant buildings with broken windows.

I agree with Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone "Whatever It Takes" strategy. Art is not enough, but it can be a part of series of programs to improve neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood Art Parade project is produced by Flint Public Art Project with support from the Ruth Mott Foundation.

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