Nov. 20 2013 12:21 PM

Grant program serving low-income areas like Lincoln Park and Logan Heights

A public meeting in Logan Heights
Photo by Jennifer McEntee

The intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues has a gas station, a liquor store, churches, tattered storefronts and a sense of unease. Locals call it "the four corners of death."

Gang-related violent crime in the vicinity of this intersection in San Diego's Lincoln Park neighborhood has earned it notoriety of the worst kind. There are plenty of people who'd like to fix it: neighborhood activists, the police, the City Council.

Could art be part of the answer? 

It's as unlikely a site as any for an art installation, and yet that's precisely why residents, business owners and artists working with the San Diego Museum of Art's Open Spaces program picked it. Lincoln Park will be the first of four communities to receive a public-art piece under a two-year initiative funded with $530,000 from the philanthropic nonprofit James Irvine Foundation. A project for Logan Heights is in development, and projects in National City and Lemon Grove will begin in January. The neighborhoods were selected because they are considered low-income and art-starved.

Through a series of neighborhood meetings and workshops, the Lincoln Park art has evolved to a lighted installation, connecting the four corners of the intersection with long cords of light-emitting diodes.

"As we met and went through everybody's ideas, we kept coming back to this intersection," said Irma Esquivias, program coordinator for Open Spaces. While there were plenty of dead-end streets here to consider, "the community wanted to take back the four corners of death and make it the four corners of life."

Lincoln Park didn't need another ethnic mural, neighbors decided. Through brainstorming sessions, the Open Spaces group hit upon the idea of light, and this crossroads as a portal. The LED cords will sit like a halo on the intersection.

While it was possible for the LEDs to light up in different colors, the area's repute among color-coded street gangs precluded that. Rather, it was decided the light would shine white, as a universal representation of life, Esquivias said.

The concept was submitted to the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture in early November. If the commission approves it, it could be installed by year's end. Future maintenance of the piece would likely be overseen by the city's Business Improvement District program.

Roberto Salas is the artist-in-residence for the first year of the Open Spaces program. His previous local projects have included a mosaic mural at the Logan Heights branch library called "Las Americas de Lejos" and an inscribed sculpture at Mira Costa College named "Los Portales del Jardin." Next year's artist-in-residence hasn't yet been named. The grant funding also provides for a lead artist who already lives in each community; it's Todd Stands in Lincoln Park and Misael Diaz in Logan Heights.

Salas said his creativity isn't dampened by the art-by committee approach. Rather, he said his creative process is fed by the collective brainpower of the community the artwork will eventually serve.

"I feel like the artists are catalysts, instigating the whole thought of what can be done," Salas said, explaining that he works with the lead artists to sort and distill the community's suggestions. "That's the exciting part. We don't have any idea what it's going to be. We try to get as much information as we can."

Salas was one of the first people to arrive at a Logan Heights community meeting the evening of Nov. 6 at the Memorial Recreation Center senior room on South 30th Street. He and Diaz hung an "Open Spaces" banner outside and, with Esquivias, set up Mexican food, sodas and water along a back countertop. Folding chairs formed a semicircle in the well-worn room, already cramped with old pianos, green vinyl chairs, an American flag and posters detailing the "Twelve Steps of Narcotics Anonymous." Two stray dogs wandered in and out through an open door.

A little more than a dozen people filtered in, some from businesses, nonprofits and art studios in the neighborhood, others from the San Diego Museum of Art. They chatted congenially while putting food on their plates and finding a seat.

The working-group nature of the Open Spaces initiative is part of its appeal, Diaz explained.

"There's a hope with public art that people will feel ownership over the work, and especially with this project, the way it operates is very conducive to that," Diaz said.

Esquivias said the Open Spaces model is demonstrating how a neighborhood can shape its own surroundings.

A rendering of the light installation at 
Imperial and Euclid

"People are realizing that this may be the way public art should be done in their community at all times," she said. "Sometimes you have a piece that comes in and you don't necessarily like it and you wonder, Who decided on that piece? Why is it there?" 

This was the fourth meeting for the Logan Heights project, the first being a meet-and-greet and the subsequent ones intended for gathering ideas. A business owner was the first to inquire: Have you narrowed down this project by location? By medium?

Nothing has been finalized, Salas said: "We still have license to dream."

A handout detailed ideas from previous meetings. Suggested locations included the intersection of Commercial and 25th streets and undeveloped properties near Interstate 5. Artistic concepts included historical sculptures, vertical gardens and interactive mural tours.

What about our alleyways? asked a community member at the Nov. 6 meeting. How could we "reactivate" these spaces in a positive way that deters crime and trash? Another proposed a walking audio tour that would draw visitors to points of interest in Logan Heights. Or how about a web-based app that could direct people to local art but also pinpoint vacant areas that could serve as future canvases?

Each neighborhood selected for the Open Spaces initiative has $30,000 budgeted for supplies, materials and maintenance, with another $5,000 allotted to celebrate the unveiling. As public art goes, that's not a huge allowance. But it's a start.

"We hope that such projects, as they go on, it's the first seed of a beginning to expand more art, more signs, more improvements, more trees," Salas said. "The art comes in as a force."

Salas said the Open Spaces initiative brings the museum to communities that need it most.

"Where do you see most public art? You don't see it in these neighborhoods. Maybe people sometimes feel that these neighborhoods are undeserving. Why would we put it there? They have equal rights. They pay taxes, you know," he said.

"This is not going to solve everything, but it's the beginning of something that's done by a lot of people."

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