Thank you, Pine Hills.
I've spent the last 14 years running down Powers Drive, either in the morning or at night, when I can dodge the sun and most on-lookers, completing a 7-mile run that we call the 'breezewood run.' And by we, I mean the boxers from the local Dynamic's Boxing Gym, where, at 12 years old, I enrolled with money I earned from selling candy at the T.A.D.A. (teens against drugs and alcohol) summer program. I used to try to mimic the pro boxers’ training schedule as best as I could; so every morning, at 4 or 5am, or 9pm after boxing practice, I would run. When I could, I would run in the middle of the road because I was scared of all the strange people, whom I didn’t know, watching me run down this empty road. Now I run down the middle of the street because it empowers me, tells me that there isn’t anything that could slow me down. When I'm out there, it's like, you know: 'this is me,' this street, these people, all of this.
I got to see Pine Hills wake up just about every morning for over a decade; the smoke and smell rising from Negril's breakfast menu being cooked and prepared, workers all lined up at the bus stop waiting for the first Lynx 48 or 44 of the day to show up, morning haze rising from the field adjacent to the Groves on Hiawassee road, all the neighbors that would wake up early just to look at the street from their garage; and many other amazing delicacies like these that I've learned over the years to love. I also noticed a few things that I didn't care for much, one especially that would wear me down as years went by-- this dilapidated wall at 6330 Silver Star road, that I would have to pass by every morning, that would just crumble and crumble, more and more, every time I saw it.
At my first job, after I quit boxing, I got introduced to art through a co-worker, who became a friend over time, and it changed my life: I painted everywhere that I could with whatever resources that I had available, which led me to meet some great people and to paint in some even greater spaces. But over a period of time, returning home from those other communities that welcomed me to paint, with their great vibrant walls, made me think more introspectively about what this damaged wall in my community said about me, about us.
Above anything else, I felt like it said that we didn't care-- something that I knew wasn't true. So I did what seemed to be the next logical step, in my mind, and I went to do something about it. I went to the commissioner's office, to the owner of the property, to Arts and Cultural Affairs, and Code Enforcements to get the permission needed to paint murals on this wall-- and not long after that, we got started.
I spent the last few weeks of 2018 scraping the old paint that was still clinging to the wall and put up new primer for the upcoming murals-- I did have money saved to have the wall pressure washed, and a small team to help me put up primer, but a family emergency decimated those funds and my team of primers had some scheduling conflicts as well, so I had to adjust-- I scraped that entire wall with an old scraper that my father had in his toolbox, by myself, during the winter that year; which was immiserating, and also did the priming alone shortly after. I went out at night because it was so embarrassing to be out there, doing that work by myself; if anyone could imagine me on Powers Drive, on a ladder, wearing clothes about twice my size, gloves, construction glasses, whilst freezing out there at 4am in the morning-- for about 3 weeks straight. I got help from one of my neighbors during the last week (Thank you J.R.) and invited the artists to come out the following week. We started with 12 local artists the week after Christmas of 2018. All the artists had sketches and ideas for what they wanted to paint, and we all agreed that the message for this work was going to be inclusivity, acceptance, beauty, and individuality. And it was that, and is that, in ways that we never even imagined that it would be .
We were embraced almost immediately. By week two, there were folks coming up to record and interview us almost every day ; news reporters, youtube enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. None of the artists, even our most experienced, had ever experienced being so welcomed.
Everything was going well and the project seemed to be on track to finish within the 3 months that we expected, but then we ran into the plans of others; on January, 10th, 2019, everything came to a halt. When it was least expected, a local council member approached me while I was painting at the wall alone and threatened me to my face about the art that we were putting up. I just remember being very confused, hurt, and absolutely bemused. She told me that she was a part of an opportunity zone’s panel that was specific to Pine Hills and that our art didn’t reflect the image of Pine Hills that they wanted to build upon-- I was given a list of things to paint and told if we didn’t comply that our wall would get torn down, and we could possibly face litigation. I mentioned that all the work that we did was legal and that we got the proper permission to do it but she told me that it didn’t matter. She told me about all the murals that she didn’t like and went on a rant about them until I told her that I heard enough and wasn’t going to comply. I couldn’t believe that I’d be in that position in my own neighborhood, and I just had to come to terms with everything.
I can never forget that day, as I’ve never felt as powerless in my neighborhood as I did that day. My agency as a law abiding citizen was second to hers, and theirs. I thought about quitting, and choosing not to fight because what it could cost me and the other artist, but I thought as well about all the people that came out to support our work and what it would mean to let them down, so I chose the latter. I knew that regardless of what I did, I was doing it for curious kids in Pine Hills that grew up like me. Doing nothing wasn’t a choice.
After that incident, and the call for unpaid intervention from the community council, several artists backed out of doing the project citing concerns of genuine partnership. I had to continue without them and the resources that they were going to bring to the project; which left me in a precarious situation. I continued the best that I knew how to and used whatever I could to finish the project. Even if that meant going out there to paint after a whole day of school and work, or spending money meant for groceries on paint.
I became a fiduciary of trust between the artists, my neighbors, the art supporters, and all the people that would be affected by that art, and it weighed on me like a ton of bricks. I had to interrupt my life to make sure that I went to every community council meeting, every county commissioners meeting, every private indoor meeting pertaining to that art wall that there was. I missed work, I missed school, took hour-long bus rides just to fight for the interests of all those people. Had to question my own sanity multiple times, because I pushed my body to exhaustion and myself to complete insolvency for art that the county was likely going to try to take from us. But I kept on; we did something that transformed this community project into something that was beyond my hopes.
Spontaneously, I happened to encourage, enlist, and possibly create some young artists. The kids that witnessed me painting everyday gained the confidence to ask me to paint, and I reflected that confidence and taught them how to design and sketch their own ideas before transforming them into murals. One group of kids turned into two, then three, boys mentorship groups came out, some artistic perambulators from up and down the street, a local daycare, older artists with no mural experience, residents hopping out of traffic just to ask me to help, etc. Before I knew it, a whole army of residents geared up, trusted themselves and me and came out to finish this project. No fundraiser’s, no help from the county, the city, etc. We got paint donated from our neighbors, local paint stores like Florida Paints and small unsolicited cash donations by regular folks who appreciated our work and efforts. That’s how we got by.
Now every morning or night that I go out and run, I see this art and I’m sour with pride. I witnessed and lived the struggle that made this work. I looked into the eyes of the folks that this work had inspired the most.
The county might take this wall down in a couple of months for whatever reasons cited, but this message isn’t about them. I’m writing this to thank my city. It was the hardest two years of my life: the most mentally challenging, frustrating, yet liberating years.
Everybody that stopped by, honked, shouted out of their car windows, took pictures, videos, stopped me to talk at the grocery store, laundromat, school etc. The bus drivers, postal workers, firemen, service men who took the time to stop and show support for this work. Thank you. You guys validated my every struggle.
I will continue to run past this wall, even if it’s removed. And I will still think about what happened here and what was lost. There will probably never be another project like this, built up with the love and resources of people who don't have much outside of their resilience; I've never seen the youth and the elderly in Pine Hills come out to support one thing, like they did for this, and would love to see more of it. Pine Hills is where I feel safe and loved, so you can count on me being here as long as I can be. We will see better days than these and I’m glad to re-invest the love that my elders in Pine Hills instilled in me here and I hope to see mines bequeathed to a younger generation. Thank you, Pine Hills.