Under the city's "25 Square" initiative, neighborhoods are targeted for clean-up, and crews spend a few days mowing weeds, picking up trash, and repairing potholes and broken sidewalks.
But when the service trucks are gone, vacant homes with boarded windows and doors still haunt blighted areas. That's where artists come in.
The Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded team of experts jointly working on neighborhood development and reducing gun violence, recently launched a neighborhood stewardship component of "25 Square." After the city's Public Works crews finish their cleanup of targeted areas, the team works with local artists and residents to create both temporary and permanent installations to brighten up boarded homes and businesses.
"Outside groups come in and do this cleanup, but then they go away. And they don't always come back to see it, so those areas get trashed again. We had to find a way to get the community to take ownership of their neighborhoods," said Dorian Spears, junior project manager for neighborhood economic stability on the mayor's team.
The Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team has focused all of its efforts on three areas: South Memphis, Binghampton, and the Madison Avenue/Crosstown corridor. Although "25 Square" crews clean up neighborhoods all over the city, the team will go behind them and add the arts component in its target communities. First up: South Memphis.
Spears' team partnered with the UrbanArt Commission to find a lead artist for South Memphis, and Darlene Newman was chosen. Newman, who lives in South Memphis, is leading a team of neighborhood artists on creating murals throughout the neighborhood.
"Darlene knew we could come up with some concepts to celebrate the legacy and culture of South Memphis, but we ran into a question about how we get neighbors involved in the process of taking ownership of the blight," Spears said.
Then Spears met Cat Normoyle, an instructor at the Memphis College of Art who recently moved to Memphis from Atlanta. Normoyle had done her master's thesis on putting positive messaging on public art in inner-city Atlanta neighborhoods.
Normoyle and some of her students at MCA developed the slogan "Make Memphis" and created stencils that mimicked the historic architecture in South Memphis. They painted large panels, designed to cover windows and doors in vacant homes, that residents can re-create.
"It's stencil-based work that can be done quickly and easily by youth, middle-aged people, or older people," Spears said. "And there's space on the panels for residents to add some positive message that encourages people to keep our neighborhoods clean."
The first set of 10 panels, created by MCA students, will be installed on some blighted properties in South Memphis this spring. The mayor's team will hold painting sessions with South Memphis residents to create additional panels in April.
"This will give them something to look at, so people don't just become immune to blight as they pass boarded-up homes," Spears said. "It helps them think, how can I take this and make it my own?"