The late rapper Tupac Shakur said — and I’m paraphrasing — that unless young people are shooting up the streets, no one pays attention. The same could be said for the central-city neighborhood that runs north of Indiana Street and west of I-75 in Toledo.
Police officers know it as Beat 620; statistically, it leads Toledo in shootings and homicides. It’s also one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Unless someone’s blasting, you don’t hear much about it.
But that’s not the whole story — it never is.
Postive things are going on around-the-way — if you just look. (Journalism rule No. 1: Get out of the office. Nothing good happens there.)
A week ago, while riding around the neighborhood, I bumped into 20 students, ages 14 to 18, painting a mural and some concrete platforms around Roosevelt Pool at 910 Dorr St., near Smith Park. The last time I read about Smith Park in The Blade was in connection to the Smith Park Mafia, a gang also known as the Lil Heads.
But these kids weren’t beefing or banging. They were turning drab concrete into vibrant rushes of color that would showcase a shimmering neon-hued mural, including a sunset that lights up a rendition of the I-280 Bridge.
I learned later that they were part of the Young Artists at Work summer youth program, sponsored by The Arts Commission. Funded by the Lucas County Job and Family Services Department, the Roosevelt Pool mural is one of three community projects Young Artists worked on from June 24 to Aug. 2. Apprentices from more than 20 area high schools also painted a public mural at The Zepf Wellness Center and designed and painted custom murals on park benches.
When I went back to Roosevelt a few days later, the mural was almost done. The place had a different vibe, and it was definitely working for neighborhood resident Diante Allen, 20, who was chilling with his 4-year-old son, Tayvion.
“It looks and makes you feel better,” Diante told me. “The colors give it a whole different feeling than a bare wall. It makes you feel like you’re somewhere else, like on a beach.”
Taking you somewhere else, even if only in your mind, is what art’s all about. It feeds the imagination and takes you on a journey of self-discovery. Public schools should never cut art and music classes. They aren’t just frills for rich kids.
“When I paint, I can express my feelings without having to talk about them,” said apprentice Alahna Ham, 14, a freshman at Toledo School for the Arts, as she dabbed orange paint on the concrete. Interested in painting, dance, and music, Alahna wants to study at Julliard in New York.
Program instructor Yusuf Lateef, 36, of Toledo called his diverse crew of apprentices a “little utopia.”
While they worked, they talked about all kinds of issues — big and small — including religion and cheating spouses. They actually listened to each other, learning from their differences, instead of letting them divide them.
Compared to jaded adults, young people can affect you like an opiate.
“The variety of people here is amazing,” apprentice Trey Harris, 18, of Toledo, told me. An artist and poet, he’s headed to Eastern Michigan University this fall on an academic scholarship to study simulation and gaming. “You get to learn about other people here. That’s what I like about my generation. We can come together and work toward a common goal.”
The Young Artists program employed more than 60 students this year for six weeks, paying the minimum wage of $7.85 an hour.
Public art like the Roosevelt Pool mural transforms an entire space, and takes whoever is there along for the ride. It can light up an entire community or city, and even boost economic development, as Philadelphia has shown with its internationally known city-sponsored Mural Arts Program.
A full-time artist in Toledo, Mr. Lateef was part of Young Artists first class, 20 years ago. The mural’s design, he told me, came out of many hours of group discussions and artistic exercises, as well as talks with neighborhood residents. He likes public art because the people who enjoy it are part of the scene.
“It’s an accent to what’s already there,” he said. “The real beauty is the people who walk amongst it.”
Mr Lateef told me about an art installation he created in another central-city neighborhood about six years ago, on Hamilton Street and City Park Avenue. No one has damaged it, he said.
That reminded me of the sprawling, world-renowned Heidelberg Project in Detroit, where I spent the last 15 years. It’s unguarded and unprotected. My friend Tyree Guyton, who created the urban art installation, told me none of the project had been damaged, either. People on Detroit’s east side understand what Mr. Guyton was doing: Unlocking their possibilities by creating something beautiful out of material and products society has discarded.
The Roosevelt mural will include parts of a poem written by the apprentices entitled: “Toledo: the Radiant City of Change.” That would make a pretty good campaign slogan, except that politicians would find a way to corrupt the message. They always do.
I asked Caroline Jardine, 19, an assistant instructor and former Young Artists apprentice, if she believed in Toledo’s future. She’s a University of Toledo sophomore majoring in art education who plans to stay here.
“I have a lot of friends who think Toledo doesn’t have anything to offer, but I think the city is much stronger than it was 10 years ago,” she said. “I think it’s my responsibility to make sure that these kids get an opportunity to experience what I had a chance to experience.”
Unfortunately, Young Artists can’t take everyone.
The program received more than 150 applications this year for 61 openings, Ms. Jardine said. “I tell them they will never have a better job.”
No doubt. They have created a mural and public art that people will enjoy for decades to come. That’s news — good news — for a hardknock neighborhood that could use some.