It’s to be expected that some residents would object to allocating city funds to creating murals on the external walls of New York City Housing Authority developments when it’s hard to find funds to clear interior walls of persistent, dangerous mold. But Groundswell, a Brooklyn-based community arts nonprofit, regularly proves its value to supporters and detractors alike as it partners with local youth and community stakeholders to turn public walls – in NYCHA developments and elsewhere – into public works of art.
“It always turns out that those who resist in the early stages, the (NYCHA) tenant leaders, become the strongest advocates once they see the final result,” said Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchill, Groundswell’s youth development manager, who joined the organization in 2015. “They will tell that story over and over again, once they grasp the impact of the mural.”
Last year, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx representative who grew up in NYCHA housing, allocated $500,000 to Groundswell. The funds supported the Public Art/Public Housing initiative and produced three youth-led murals in each borough. The funds were from the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, a program intended to reduce violence and make neighborhoods safer in and around 15 NYCHA developments that have experienced some of the highest crime rates in the city. Groundswell partnered with Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx, Queensbridge Houses in Queens, Tompkins Houses in Brooklyn, Stapleton Houses in Staten Island and St. Nicholas Houses in Manhattan.
“The Queensbridge project revealed how powerful art can be,” Bentsi-Enchill said. “The neighborhood was full of unengaged youth who were just idling. Once they plugged into the project, they took ownership of it and their commitment followed.”
Since 1996, through the medium of murals, Groundswell has matched artists and inner city youth to walls in underserved communities. The art brings messages of social justice to every corner of the city – including Rikers Island, where Groundswell produced 13 works of art with incarcerated youth in the past year alone.
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