One year after the violence that erupted in streets throughout Baltimore after the arrest of African-American Sandtown resident Freddie Gray, and his subsequent death while in police custody, symbols of unity are rising in upper Park Heights in the form of art co-created by its residents.
On Thursday April 14, community leaders gathered at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC to dedicate a series of small murals painted by middle school students over the last six years. They’re part of a community art project aimed at building bridges between the Orthodox Jewish community and the African-American and Hispanic communities.
The project began in 2010 after an altercation between a pair of Shomrim volunteers and a 15-year-old African-American male. The skirmish happened on the 3300 block of Falstaff Road and sparked concern among residents in the Park Heights community about the deterioration of relationships in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the lack of dialogue among ethnic groups.
The panels are rainbow colored and depict faces, neighborhoods and other images associated with inclusion. One panel reads “Look Again. Understand the Other.” Another features the faces of three people, all with different skin colors, absent of any facial expression.
If it’s the start of ongoing interactions, that’s what’s needed. Prior to this, my kids’ interactions with the other two communities were virtually nonexistent or a negative experience for them.
— Charles Hauss, founder, Boy Scout Troop 1299
Determined to pursue a project full of “Jewish Zen,” Baltimore artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg- Cohen began working with students from Cross Country and Falstaff elementary/middle schools, along with poet Jill Solomon. Students of each ethnic group wrote down a series of words describing stereotypes they commonly hear about themselves. Schlossberg-Cohen said it was at this point that the students’ reluctance toward the project turned into passion.
“These are people who live together but may not like each other, may be afraid of each other,” he said. Through this project, “they got to know each other.”
Schlossberg-Cohen is the co-founder of the Rebuilding Thru Arts Project (RAP) — a nonprofit organization that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds from across the city to engage in collaborative art projects that are meant to bring visual inspiration to communities. He has worked on a number of murals such as one at the Edmonson Community Center in West Baltimore and several in city schools.
This project differs from many of Schlossberg-Cohen’s, he said, in that the students painted a series of panels instead of one large mural, which resulted from a struggle of finding the best location for the art.
“Rabbi Phil [Miller] and I went to several meetings with then-[police] commissioner [Anthony] Batts,” he said. “They loved the project. They kept asking us, ‘How do we become closer with the community?’ I said, ‘Here I have a solution for you. Have a picnic, have the mural.’ But we couldn’t do it at the library, we couldn’t do it at Sinai, we couldn’t do it at Northwest High.”
“We’ve asked [the kids] to solve the problems, and no one’s listening,” Schlossberg-Cohen said of the murals’ designs. “So I don’t know if their eyes are angry or mystified. This is our future, and they’re not sure.”
In addition to the schools, a number of community organizations participated in the project including the Jewish Community Center, CHAI and members of Boy Scout Troop 1299, which is an all-Orthodox Jewish troop.
“[People think] Boy Scouts should be out there camping, building fires and tying knots,” said troop founder Charles Hauss. “There’s a whole lot more to scouting than just that, and this activity gave us a great opportunity for a dialogue.”
Hauss has been a teacher for 40 years, 27 of them in Baltimore City, where he taught at Pimlico Elementary School. He said the value of different ethnic groups having a dialogue about race at such a young age is “something that you really just cannot measure.”
Hauss emphasized that art projects alone will not solve the underlying economic and social disparities facing Baltimore, but they do well to erase stereotypes that form before adulthood.
“If it’s the start of ongoing interactions, that’s what’s needed,” he said. “Prior to this, my kids’ interactions with the other two communities were virtually nonexistent or a negative experience for them.”
“When I looked on TV and [saw] African-Americans, I said, ‘They don’t represent me.’ And then when I looked at the community, [I thought], ‘This is not the community that I live in that they’re talking about,’” she said. “I can say that in my living room, pointing at the TV, [but] it’s not going to change a thing.”
For Schlossberg-Cohen, who was leaving for Poland the next day to work on a similar project with the Krakow JCC, community outreach is global and the message of unity is universal.
“My belief is to touch one person,” he said. “The belief is that if we save a life we save a nation. Both past and future.”