My staff came to me with another bright idea. “Let’s do a mural along the Façade,” they stated. I have been working on the Façade project for years and the idea of mural going up alongside it wasn’t cute. “Why do we need a mural along a performance venue?” I asked. They wanted the mural because they felt like it would make the project connect to the community more than the project we developed.
The Newark Landmarks and Historic Committee had made us jump through some hoops to get the Façade project approved. First, we battled them on whether the project should be a preservation project, (our idea) or it should be a restoration project (their idea). I was leaning toward preservation for financial reasons. For the Lincoln Park community, a preservation project was the best idea because the Façade, in essence, was a ruin and preserving and reusing it as an outdoor performance venue was consistent with the history and goals of the neighborhood. Moreover, it would be on a scale that wasn’t imposing for the residents. However, for the City of Newark, the Façade is on the major corridor, Broad Street, and it is the first major piece of architecture that drivers see entering the City. They want the Façade to represent an aspiration, as opposed to a fly community project. The big difference in the two, unfortunately, was a budget increase of $700,000 dollars and placing two twenty foot towers on an eight story building. The City won because they are the City and even though they didn’t have any legal or professional grounds for opposing the project, they weren’t going to approve the preservation project for some other technical reason at site plan approval and I had fought with them too many times in the pass to ignore this complaint. They had dug in their heels and I didn’t want to spend our funds on lawyers.
However, my staff was not happy and they felt that if we placed a mural next to the Façade, then we could reclaim the Façade as our project as opposed to some project that would be better set in Princeton, NJ than in Brick City. I had pushed the City and so I was initially opposed. But my staff was persistent and I’m a softy so I said okay. “Let’s organize the community and if we need votes call me,” I said, “otherwise yall are going to lift this one.” And to my pleasant surprise, they did.
The mural is titled “Emancipation of Music” and was produced by the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, Rutgers University, Integrity House, the Newark Public Art Program and Yendor Arts with lead artist Armisey Smith and supporting artist Malik Whitaker and students from Rutgers University. The mural was painted onto the side of a residential building operated by Integrity House. The mural marks the first collaboration between the Newark Public Art Program and Rutgers University in which the mural was attached to an undergraduate American Studies course entitled “Murals, Street Art & Graffiti: Power and Public Art in Contemporary Urban America,” and the mural was designed with the help of Rutgers students enrolled in the course.
The mural’s theme is the history and contemporary culture of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, epitomized by African American music. The Lincoln Park area, once referred to as the Barbary Coast, was an African American business district that became a hub for jazz clubs and nightlife. “The mural celebrates Lincoln Park’s past and present by featuring images of a choir, musician Billie Holiday, who performed in Newark and of Sarah Vaughn and James Moody, who were from Newark and began their career here. The mural includes an image of a blues player to represent that genre and an image of a disc jockey (DJ) to represent the music genres of House and Hip-Hop which are the mainstays of the Lincoln Park Music Festival. The mural also depicts images referring to Africa and to slavery, a reference not only to African American people but specifically to the South Park Calvary Presbyterian Church which was once an abolitionist church.
The final artwork was developed collaboratively with input from the partnering organizations, Rutgers students, a community meeting where residents and other stakeholders attended and the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission, which had to approve the design of the mural because it is in a Historic District.
One of the residents, Tobias, loved this process so much, he created a video of it.
My insight on this is that after nearly two decades of frontline urban redevelopment work in Newark and an increasingly receding hairline, I realize that this work isn’t meant to be done alone, but with friends, teams, family members, crews, partners, organizations, institutions and movements if it is to be successful. Sometimes you have to let others take the lead for it to be fruition.