Mural Makes Over Vacant Former Strong School

Lucy Gellman PhotoSarah Miller PhotoJust 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.

Lucy Gellman PhotosAfter 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.”

Lee Cruz PhotoTo 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.”

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posted by: 1644 on July 10, 2017  1:43pm

The city should hire these guys to paint the highway underpass.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 10, 2017  1:54pm

We need more public art in New Haven as a way to reclaim the remaining dismal spaces and to reflect the people in the neighborhoods.
This a wonderful project.
Real vision is generated at the grass roots level.
City officials only see the downtown and the Green.
Please send some of this energy to other neighborhoods in need of revitalization.
Fair Haven is a great community and a model of local organizing and initiatives.
(Insert loud applause here!)

posted by: fairhavenmother on July 11, 2017  3:35pm

This was truly a grassroots, community driven, effort. An incredibly diverse group of folks participated in the revitalization of the abandoned Strong School to show the true community dedication to the resurrection of this school. I feel incredibly grateful to have contributed in a very small way to this beautiful project. I hope that the city will take note of this effort and see that neighborhood criticism of the currently submitted project to turn this school into over-priced housing is not stonewalling, but rather a deeply thought out commitment to addressing the needs of the community.

posted by: Rich Pizzo on July 11, 2017  4:50pm

Wonderful…. what a great community… The art is stunning, the colors vivid, changed the whole look of that Old Building…..... Please do the underpass at Middletown Ave and Front Street. -both sides of the river,,,,, it would be fitting….... for this very diverse neighborhood. like, Like, LIKE!

posted by: on July 12, 2017  7:56am

I always want to participate in communities like Fair Haven, where everyone comes out for celebrations like collaborative mural-making. I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by hardworking people who care deeply that ideas for development come from the interests of the neighborhood. I hope this continues to spur the reimagining of this storied building as an empowering cultural center for this wonderfully diverse community.

posted by: 1644 on July 12, 2017  12:51pm

David & fhmother:  The ability to paint great murals does not equate to the ability to design, fiancees, and execute a complicated rehabilitation.  Nonetheless, if you have a viable, competitive proposal for the Strong School, you should contact Matt Nemerson now.  Perhaps, the two of you can form a business partnership, raise capital, and come forward with a better proposal to get this building back on the tax rolls and serving human needs.  At this point, however, even after waiting many years, while the building has crumbled, there is only one proposal.  That proposal gets the building back on the tax rolls and puts a little cash in the city’s coffers, while also increasing New Haven’s housing stock.  If, in fact, the apartments are over-priced, the owners will need to lower the rent.  If his cash-flow is insufficient, he may default on his loan, leading his lenders to foreclose his interests and resell the building.  A new investor will reap the benefits of the original developer’s work, while people continue to be housed there.  The developer and his lenders may lose, but why should you care?  The city will get some cash, a continuous income stream from taxes, and more housing.  Would those things be good?