Just off Grand Avenue, an African woman carries a bundled baby on her back, a purple cloth pressing up into her hair. A half-pigeon, half-dove with pink and blue-green wings flies above. Just a few feet to the left, an activist steps forward, bangled, purple fist slicing the air triumphantly. The Quinnipiac River bridge beckons behind her.
Still and yet pulsing with life, these are the scenes that now greet passersby where the old Strong School building sits between Perkins Street and Clinton Avenue. There a new wraparound mural looks out onto the street, boasting bright, interlocking designs related to the surrounding area while the building itself sits vacant, awaiting news on a proposed renovation into an apartment complex.
After securing funding earlier this summer, a group of Fair Haven organizers, activists, friends and families came out Saturday and Sunday to work on the mural, designed by artist Emilio Herrera Corichi. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Corichi said he sees the mural as a step in bringing the neighborhood closer together.
“This is a project for all who exist in this neighborhood,” he said in Spanish Saturday, watching as a group of 20 grabbed bright paint and brushes, and began filling in his designs. “It presents the unity of the neighborhood, and has all the cultures and tastes of the neighborhood.”
To include those cultures and tastes, Corichi worked closely with Fair Haveners Sarah Miller, Fatima Rojas, and Beth Pellegrino, who wanted to show off the diversity of the neighborhood — a quarter of the city that includes not only Latino families, but African immigrants, black activists and artists, Jews, Muslims, and Indians. A part of the city alive with wildlife, religion, and succulent food, from Peruvian to pizza.
Channeling a rich history of Mexican muralism, Corichi committed the sentiments to paper with blocky, flowing shapes. As black-and-white designs made it from paper to the sides of the school last week, community members jumped into the painting stage, inviting friends and family members to get involved over the weekend.
”With so much discussion around what this building is going to be, this is kind of a positive political statement,” said Tony Pelligrino, who moved to a multifamily home on Perkins Street with his wife Beth seven years ago. As he spoke, he filled in a spill of yellow over a woman’s head. “That we care about what happens to this building. That the neighborhood is concerned. Not just concerned, but involved.”
”I always like to support community efforts, but this project has a deeper meaning for me because I come from a culture of murals,” said Rojas, watching as volunteers filled in a treble clef with red, brown, orange and turquoise paint on the side of the building. The Tower of Pisa leaned accordingly beside it. A shamrock floated below. “They have the ability to project diversity and unity.”
“Fair Haven needs a cultural center,” she added. “Can you imagine this, with art, theater, music and dance? I feel that in doing this mural, we can present what this neighborhood can be.”
She pointed out her favorite part of the mural — a figure Corichi intended specifically to be an African mother, carrying a child on her back. Miller said that the figure had started as a man, but discussions with the artist had led to making her a woman.
As Rojas air-traced the contours of the woman’s face with one finger, citizens-turned-muralists Pete DiGennaro and Isaac Montiel traded stories on why they’d gotten involved with the project. A resident of Newhallville, DiGennaro had seen an event titled “¡Vamos a Pintar!” on social media and been interested in the project’s local, justice-driven focus.
“This kind of art directly opposes oppressive power,” he said. “It’s direct experience … it builds community. As soon as you’re witnessing a piece of art, you’re a participant.”
Monteil, who is also Rojas’s cousin, said he wanted to get away from the clamor of New York City, where he is a student in computer information technology. But it also reminded him of a mural project he’d done with Mixteca, a Brooklyn nonprofit helping new immigrants.
Five panels down, Rojas’s 10-year-old daughter Ambar was carefully filling in a bright Catrina — a grinning, hat-toting skull — consulting every so often with volunteer Lior Trestman on whether a spot of yellow should adorn another part of the panel.
“It makes me feel creative and it makes me feel like people who don’t have the chance to participate — they have the time to express what the culture is,” Ambar said. “My parents are Mexican, and I know a lot about Mexican culture. I love bright colors. A hat like this is bright colors — and the colors show love.”
The $2,000 project received $918 from the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative in June, through its Neighborhood Public Improvement Program. Individual donors stepped in to provide the remainder.
That included $1,000 from Fair Haven Pharmacy owner Chandra Jakka, whose business has operated across the street for two years. Watching the mural’s progress on Saturday afternoon, he said that he was excited for the bright images to breathe new life into the vacant building.
“This is wonderful,” he said. “It is going to bring a lot of awareness to the building and what they are trying to do. Lee [Cruz] and Sarah [Miller] are contributing so much to the community … it’s going to unite all the people in the community.”
“Being in the community is not just about making money,” he added. “It’s also what you give back.”