Shawn Dunwoody and his team of high school and college students are using an artistic approach to help jumpstart a transformation of an area in need.
According to rocwiki.org, the JOSANA neighborhood, which stands for the Jay Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association, has appeared in a top 10 ranking for most dangerous areas in America. The area between highway 490 and Jay Street has even been nicknamed the “Ghost Town.”
Dunwoody’s most recent project, with help from several other activist groups over the past decade, has given the community hope that change is coming.
“All you hear is the negative stuff going on in the area, and now we are turning the page,” said Stacey Rowe, the communications director of Dunwoody’s community art effort known as the Fruit Belt Mural Project. “Now the area is getting more positive exposure and when you figure out how to bring more people in the area that can be very beneficial for improvement,” she added.
Rowe met Dunwoody years back when the two worked together for an organization focusing on the importance of safe sex and youth development. Now, years later, they work on another community-building effort centered on young people.
Dunwoody said working for the community has always been a part of him. “If you don’t see something that you want around you, that means you need to act on it,” he said.
The Fruit Belt Mural project involves Dunwoody and a team that includes a core group of six students. The group’s initiative is to bring the community together through painting buildings on the street corner of Jay and Grape streets. The project officially launched this past May, gathering more than 200 volunteers who participated in the painting. The announcement of the event brought many spectators along with extensive news coverage.
Along with painting on the walls, additional murals in the area represent words to live by. Such words that are prominently visible on the wall include the slogans “shine”, “Happy & Dream”, and “Say I will & I Can.”
David Johnson, an employee of the project who works closely with Dunwoody, feels people were just ready to try something different.
“That’s what art can do for a community,” he explained. “Positive quotes and color can put people in a different position because it changes their environment. It makes them feel like they are in a different place, and that maybe the world isn’t the same thing.”
Johnson’s role also involves working closely with the kids involved in the project. Another one of Dunwoody’s main missions is to provide guidance and opportunity for young students who may not have previously had the same kind of attention.
“It gives them employment in their neighborhood,” Rowe noted. “They are beautifying a neighborhood that needs some help in supporting the businesses that are down here.”
Johnson explained how the project gives kids the opportunity not only to make their own money at a young age, but also to learn effective life principles that could benefit them in the future.
“Kids can grow up with this mentality that it’s better to not ask questions and that transitions into schoolwork where it’s mostly about listening,” Johnson said. “So art offers them something different.”
He also added how enjoyable it is for him to be able to watch these kids follow similar footsteps that he took when he was their age.
“It’s just really cool watching how creative they get, and see them face that barrier of ‘can I do this or not?’ ” Johnson said. “I look at them and say ‘Wow, it's crazy; I was doing the exact same thing when I was their age.’ ”
The project has also reached out to the public to help fund the efforts. In coordination with Indiegogo, the project has raised $5,663 as of late November.
Dunwoody’s idea for the project stemmed from a similar project done in Philadelphia. In his time working as an art coordinator in Philadelphia, he took notice of the Philly Painting Project. The principle was simply to paint the buildings of a run-down area. Yet according to Dunwoody, the neighborhood benefited economically from the increased exposure and opened the doors for both new and old businesses.
“It’s all about place-making. How can you take an area, and redefine it?” Dunwoody said. “How does one use his or her resources in order to shape the community in a positive way?”
That concept learned in Philadelphia is something Dunwoody has taken with him back to his hometown city of Rochester, and more specifically the JOSANA neighborhood.
“I get a lot of comments from the people that come in [to the store], and everyone’s impressed with what they are doing,” explained College Club Beverages owner Joe Petix. “It’s another feather in the cap for the neighborhood.”
Dunwoody’s project is another step in what has been a long-lasting fight for the JOSANA neighborhood. Along with the formation of JOSANA in 2007, a neighborhood master plan was introduced by the residents in an effort to stop drug related and other unwanted activities.
In other words, the Fruit Belt Project was a long-awaited response to the motive of JOSANA residents to improve the overall safety of their neighborhood.
Six months after the mural project originally launched, Dunwoody has explored other ways of benefiting the community. His team has also built an all-fruit-based garden, which is visibly located right next to College Club Beverages. The garden fittingly and purposely matches the term “Fruit Belt District,” which comes from having streets in the area with fruit names, including Grape and Orange.
Dunwoody also intends on implementing other projects in the coming months. One idea is to paint the crosswalks on the same Jay Street corner, addressing an issue the community has with drivers not stopping at the stop sign. Dunwoody said his idea stems from a study that claims drivers tend to slow down when they see the street is shaded with color. Another is adding certain “glow elements” that will give the street added light when the skies turn dark. Above all else, Dunwoody’s main priority is just listening to the various community members have to say.
“I think being a sponge is a better way to be able to connect with people,” Dunwoody acknowledged. “I think I learned more about the world when I would just listen to what other people say and their different ideas.”
That concept has developed into a friendly relationship between Dunwoody and the people who walk by the corner of Jay Street and Grape Street on a daily basis. Dunwoody’s has become a familiar face in the JOSANA neighborhood, and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
“Being here every day, there’s people around here that are growing a real connection with me,” he said. “It’s way more than just about paint.”
This story by Tanner Swan is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.