By Gordon Brillon
Blueberry Street Park on Alderwood Drive isn’t much to look at. The playground hasn’t been updated since the ’90s, and the slides are getting rusty. The basketball court is sunken and flooded in places. Moss covers the roof of the bathroom shed.
But Saturday morning at the park, “beautiful” was the word on everybody’s lips.
That morning, around 50 community members and elementary and middle school students, with help from two professional artists and The Walls Project, gathered to paint flowers, doves, and the portrait of a community leader on the park’s community center.
For The Walls Project, which has been painting murals around the capital for four years, this work begins a new push to bring creative and entrepreneurial opportunities to underprivileged areas in North Baton Rouge. But for the residents of the surrounding neighborhood of Smiley Heights, the mural is the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a peaceful community.
Rosa Haynes Sellers, known around Smiley Heights as “Miss Rosa,” was raised across the street from the site of the new mural, in a family home where she still lives today. As a little girl, she played in the park, but by the time she had a daughter of her own, it had become too dangerous.
The ‘90s brought an influx of crack cocaine to the city, and Sellers takes care to let you know she’s not exaggerating when she says Blueberry Street Park was overrun with drug dealers.
“There’d be people in the back there shooting way over at people over there,” Sellers said, gesturing from the park to a housing project across the street, “I would have to come home and run from my car to my house to get out of the way. It got so bad to the point where every day, you’d wake up and there’d be a dead body in that park.”
Between raising a young daughter and seeing her childhood home become a shelter for drug dealers evading the police, Sellers knew that something had to change, so she did what no one else was willing to: opened a dialogue. She simply talked to the dealers, told them they wouldn’t be tolerated in the park anymore, and said she would call the police at the first sign of any drug deals.
Over time, drug presence in the park dwindled, but Sellers wasn’t satisfied. The park needed a community center, so Sellers called BREC daily, lobbying to have the agency take over an adjacent building that had formerly housed a liquor store and laundromat.
“They must have gotten sick of me calling,” she laughs, “because eventually they did it. And now the kids take pride in it. It’s theirs.”
If Sellers left an impression on BREC, it must have been positive, because her face now makes up the focal point of the building’s mural.
Heather Flynn, who recently graduated from LSU with a master’s in social work, helped coordinate the mural with Sellers and the Walls Project, and said Sellers was a no-brainer for the mural’s subject.
“She has really fought to bring this community peace,” Flynn said. “It is what it is today because of her.”
Flynn met Sellers working on a class community action project when she was canvassing door-to-door. Sellers told her how she had fought to change the community and together with other community members, LSU students and BREC, the two decided the best way to continue the park’s evolution was to beautify it.
In a neighborhood lacking resources such as grocery stores and pharmacies, Flynn said it’s important to foster a sense of community through public spaces and art.
She said the transformation of the community center walls, previously plain yellow cinderblock, was an example of how art changes outlooks.
“Even for young men in the community, who are at a greater risk of incarceration. They see it like this [before the mural] and it looks like the kind of thing they’d see in incarceration,” she said. “Now they won’t get that.”
Walls Project executive director Casey Phillips said that change in attitude is what he hopes the Walls Project can bring to Smiley Heights and other neighborhoods in Baton Rouge that face the same problems.
He said the groups has plans for more murals in North Baton Rouge, as well as a currently under-wraps pilot program that will promote creative and entrepreneurial opportunities for underprivileged youth.
“We believe North Baton Rouge and North Mid City can be reactivated and turned into entrepreneurial and cultural hubs of the city,” Phillips said. “The arts are the vehicle.”