In Toledo's Old South End, the perennial fight against urban decay has the help of an unlikely weapon: the paintbrush.
Dozens of paintbrushes, in fact.
These simple tools - in the hands of area residents, artists, teachers, students, and schoolchildren - recently transformed a noisy, dirt-strewn underpass into a riotously colorful work of art.
The piece, a Latin-American-themed mural, depicts the oversized faces of local and international Latino heroes: Toledo community leaders Aurora Gonzalez and Sofia Quintero, farm worker activist Cesar Chavez, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and painter Frida Kahlo. It also displays icons of indigenous Mexican and Peruvian art, a migrant family, a United Farm Workers flag, and small depictions of Toledo landmarks.
The mural was painted on a large pillar for the I-75 bridge that crosses Broadway, marking the entrance to the South End's historic Latino neighborhood. It was commissioned by two
Bowling Green State University faculty members and painted by dozens of local people under the direction of renowned San Diego mural artist Mario Torero. The design includes input from the Old South End community, including church officials, community leaders, local residents, and youth groups. About 50 people helped paint the mural over 10 days, completing it on May 2.
Charlie Kanwischer, associate director of BGSU's school of art and one of the project's instigators, said the mural is more than a pretty picture.
"Part of the reasoning behind the mural is economic development," Mr. Kanwischer said. "If we can create the impression that the neighborhood is art-friendly, we hope people will open businesses there and rehab buildings, and more art might appear."
That may seem like a tall order for one mural, but Liesel Fenner of the nonprofit arts advocacy organization Americans for the Arts said community-involved mural projects like this one can have a knock-on effect. Although not a panacea for urban problems, murals can bring people together and get them talking about ways to improve their surroundings, Ms. Fenner said.
"I think the community-building efforts can lead to other conversations in the community that can go beyond the arts," Ms. Fenner said. "It might lead to building of an after-school program, or a community center that was desperately needed. There are many examples of how one small vision can expand to something that really turns into an urban planning-type of outcome."
Examples of successful community murals can be seen in cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. One iconic piece of mural art is The Great Wall of Los Angeles, a half-mile stretch painted by hundreds of local youths, community members, and professionals in a project begun in the 1970s.
Mr. Torero, the artist who oversaw the Old South End's mural, has experienced the power of public art firsthand. He was a founding muralist for Chicano Park in San Diego, a space filled with murals, sculptures, and other outdoor art pieces in a predominantly Mexican-American area of the city. Community activists created the park in the 1970s in an effort to reclaim and revitalize their neighborhood, which had been devastated by the construction of a freeway. Today, the park has become one of the world's largest outdoor public art galleries, and attracts millions of visitors.
Mr. Torero, who refers to himself as an "artivist"- a blend of artist and activist - said he sees parallels between Toledo and San Diego in that both are port cities with diverse populations, some of whom have been buffeted by the economy.
He said Toledo's I-75 South End overpass reminds him of the freeway bridge in his neighborhood in San Diego that sparked the creation of Chicano Park.
"The I-75 overpass cuts the community from the downtown area," Mr. Torero said. "So now we're using the same underpass, the bridge, the pillars, to reunite the community."
Brimming with enthusiasm for the Toledo project, Mr. Torero said be believes murals can make a real difference in how people feel about their surroundings.
"People are there day after day, year after year, and they don't see any change. They just see deterioration because of the economic downturn," Mr. Torero said. "Then all of a sudden, they see a transformation take place. The environment changes the minute we place a fresh new outlook of color."
Old South End businessman Maria Rodriguez-Winter agreed. She just opened a gallery a few blocks down the road from the mural to showcase Latino art. Her hope is for the area to become a magnet for artists and entrepreneurs.
"I love it," Ms. Rodriguez-Winter said of the mural. "It says so much about our area and the people. I'm excited about it."
BGSU arts instructor Gordon Ricketts, who came up with the idea of hiring Mr. Torero for the project, said the next step will be to paint a mural on the other side of the underpass. He said the current one cost about $11,000 and was funded by a university grant and donations. Mr. Rickets said he would like to see murals all over the city and has plans to hold a mural-painting workshop next summer.
"I think all neighborhoods need this kind of art project," he said.
Dan Hernandez, the art in public places coordinator for the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, said Toledo already has a wide array of public art, although much of it is three-dimensional work such as sculptures, rather than murals. He said most art commissioned by the city is done by a single artist and then installed. The Old South End mural is different, Mr. Hernandez said.
"I think it's really exciting to pull this kind of energy, to get people behind a project like this and have them be able to make a piece that speaks about their heritage, their culture," Mr. Hernandez said.
One organization already creating public murals in Toledo is Human Values for Transformative Action.
The group, led by community activist Lorna Gonsalves, is behind 10 murals in the area painted by local artists and young people, including one on the Cherry Street Mission building on Monroe Street.
Ms. Gonsalves said painting a mural gives people, especially youth, a sense of pride and empowerment. But she added it's not always easy to obtain the funds and public support in Toledo for such works of art.
"There is resistance sometimes because people are sometimes intimidated by public art that speaks honestly about social problems," Ms. Gonsalves said.
"So while it is beautiful and necessary, I think it is also something that is not always well received."
Nevertheless, Ms. Gonsalves believes enthusiasm for the art form is growing.
"People are interested in community murals that are actually informed by the people, that speak about their hopes and dreams," Ms. Gonsalves said.
"So there's more and more interest in using creative expression as a tool not just for engaging and inspiring, but for empowerment. So people feel that they are agents of change."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: