The 64 large black-and-white photo portraits of local schoolchildren that were affixed to a park fence in Old South Baton Rouge didn’t transform the rough-edged Expressway Park into an urban oasis Monday. The semi-trucks thundering down the interstate overhead still shook the park grounds. Their diesel fumes still periodically wafted down into the green space below. The surrounding areas still felt abandoned.
But the backers of the public art project hope the installation is a first step in an art-driven revitalization of the historic but distressed neighborhood that has languished even as surrounding areas have thrived.
Professional photographers (including frequent DIG contributor Mike Buck) took expressive photos of schoolchildren from three area schools: Polk Elementary, McKinley Middle and McKinley High School. In some cases the students themselves photographed their peers. The portraits were then printed out on large white vinyl posters.
On Monday, community volunteers, including dozens of LSU students, helped install the portraits around Expressway Park, an aptly named green space tucked away below the intersection of I-10 and I-110.
The project is part of the Community Dreaming: Identity Through the Arts program that is a collaboration between the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, Center for Planning Excellence and BREC. It’s funded through a combination of private money and a federal grant.
This public art display is the first in a series of creative place-making projects designed to engage neighborhood residents, creative professionals and community leaders, and to help build awareness, identity and a sense of place throughout Old South Baton Rouge.
“As we expand the Community Dreaming initiative, and work with the residents and community members in Old South Baton Rouge, the arts can be a tool for expressing culture, celebrating heritage, and making positive statements about our community,” said project coordinator Tara Titone of the Center for Planning Excellence. “Smiling faces and bold portraits are just the beginning.”
The neighborhood has attracted attention from numerous planners and artist in recent months, including New York-based sculptor Nari Ward, who said he plans to produce community art projects in the neighborhood during his tenure as a visiting professional artist at LSU.
Expressway Park is also the site where the planned Downtown Greenway – a 2.75-mile bike and footpath that will connect downtown, city landmarks and neighborhoods – is set to break ground later this year. The portraits will remain up until the Greenway construction begins.
The Arts Council has worked with consultants to look at Old South, in order to create a plan to “reenergize and activate the community using the arts,” said Sarah Vandersypen, grants director and community development director for the Arts Council. The group is in the second year of its two-year planning grant for the neighborhood and plans to release a final plan later this year.
“We’re seeking funds and partners to do more implementation projects like this one, but really on a grander scale,” she said. “There’s so much momentum coming into this community.”
Vandersypen said the portrait project is an important first step because it helps illustrate the human identity of the neighborhood in a very public way.
“This is why we’re doing this planning initiative: for these children that are here,” she said. “We want them to have a brighter future. That means better schools, that means safer communities, that means more economic opportunity. And we’re slowly doing that.”