A good deal of attention has been paid to the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn over the last few weeks, after a 16-month-old baby boy was shot in the head as his father pushed him in his stroller across Livonia Avenue. They were on their way to visit the toddler's great-grandmother.
Brownsville is known as one of the city's toughest areas when it comes to gun violence, but there are many in the neighborhood who are trying to change that. Just two days before 16-month-old Antiq Hennis was fatally shot, a group of young Brownsville residents were proudly unveiling a pristine mural they had spent the summer painting.
The mural, on the corner of Straus Street and Pitkin Avenue, is the result of a collaboration between several parties: a community mural organization called Groundswell; the Department of Transportation; the Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District; Brownsville Community Justice Center; and an artist named Chris Soria and his assistant artist DonChristian Jones.
Soria explained the idea, which came about through a number of workshops and brainstorming activities with a group of about 15 youth over the course of a month.
"We wanted to kind of re-create the narrative of Brownsville and also examine how the narrative of Brownsville is framed in mainstream media and take a look at it from alternative perspectives, really emphasizing the complex nature of relationships between family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, community leaders and just the residents of Brownsville," Soria said.
The young artists were apparently inspired by the work of El Anatsui after a field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, seizing on "the idea of creating a fabric of interwoven material."
"Since we were working on a painting," Soria said. "We wanted to incorporate that aspect of things weaving in and out of one another in the design."
Most of the youth came to the project through the Brownsville Community Justice Center.
"They have some kind of criminal justice involvement, but part of this program is to start to change their own personal narrative, as well as change the narrative of the neighborhood," explained James Brodick, the project director at the organization.
Dashawn Hayes, one of the young people who worked on the mural, said the experience was "an awesome adventure."
"I had fun throughout the whole thing," Hayes said. "My co-workers, everybody was outstanding, everybody had a certain energy that they brought to the table."
"We were just a family," he added. "I'm gonna remember these people for the rest of my life and I really appreciate that."
Hayes proudly noted that he has already earned eight certificates for achievements through Brownsville Community Justice Center projects this year alone.
"People actually acknowledge me for my efforts," he said.
Sean Turner, another young Brownsville resident who worked on the project, is a visual artist himself. Turner noted that this is his second Brownsville mural: He started last year with the one that now sits on Rockaway and Sutter just a few blocks away. He said he's "hoping we can get a third one soon."
"May not with Groundswell, maybe just for us, like something that we want to do for the community," he mused.
Hayes, on the other hand, is a musical artist. This was his first time working with visual arts.
"I never thought that I could … express my feelings through art like this," he said. "I felt like it was a good technique and something that we should explore — everybody should explore."
Turner acknowledged Brownsville "is a rough neighborhood," but said he really believes in the ability of projects like the mural to have a positive affect on the neighborhood and its residents.
"You have to go against everything that is negative and think about positive things," he insisted. "I think to see something nice prooduced in the neighborhood — it will help change it. The small things that we do will make it get better eventually."
"Rome wasn't built in a day so we can't expect Brownsville to change in a day," Turner added.
Hayes agreed that projects like the mural can "of course" help young people in the neighborhood make better decisions and stay away from gun violence.
"I think if they actually stay and participate and see the experience they're going to be getting, they'll actually want to stay," he said. "Because that's how it was for me."
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat