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Bridging the racial divide through art



The Campus District is a divided segment of Cleveland. It is divided by race. It is divided by income. And, since the 1950s, it is an area divided by Interstate 90 and the E. 22nd Street Bridge.

To the north are Cleveland State University and Downtown, full up with a diverse mix of students and business. The Central neighborhood on the southern end is predominantly African American and home to some of the country’s oldest, and once densest, public housing.
 
Like many Cleveland neighborhoods, the construction of highways segmented the communities, creating access to the rest of the region while simultaneously cutting some neighborhoods off. The Central neighborhood is one such example.
 
A group of people who live, work and go to school on either side of the E. 22nd Street bridge have come together to talk about issues of race and prejudice through a collective public art project called A Bridge that Bridges.
 
“We had opportunities for people who wouldn’t talk to each other otherwise about race in the neighborhoods, the different levels of racism,” says Kaela Geschke, Campus District community organizer. “We were crossing lines we wouldn’t have in our daily lives.”


 
The group of 17 participants, led by Geschke, ioby (In Our Own Back Yards), Cleveland action strategist Indigo Bishop and artist Gwen Garth, founder of the Kings and Queens of Art, have met biweekly since last spring to discuss race and racism while designing a community mural.
 
“We are trying to cement that racial divide,” says Garth. “A diverse group of people of different ages, races, walks of life came together to sit down and discuss the levels of racism and create works of art.”
 
Some of the conversations revolved around preliminary painting/planning sessions. “The artwork they are creating is depicting the difference between how we see ourselves versus how others see us,” Geschke says. “We did this early on when talking about interpersonal racism. The [preliminary] images did not end up in the mural but were a stepping stone for conversation. There were a lot of different perspectives, and it was a really good process for everyone.”
 
Over the past weeks, the group has been painting the mural they designed along the E. 22nd Street Bridge. The mural spans 80 feet on both sides of the bridge, yet is only two-and-a-half feet tall.
 
“The mural shows legs of different types of people walking across the bridge on one side,” explains Geschke. “On the west wall it uses words to name the systems and thought patterns that keep racism and segregation in place in the center. Then as it continues out towards the north and south end, [where] the words change into steps that a person can take to address these inequities.”
 
The group has raised more than $1,300 toward its $2,095 ioby fundraising goal. They also received a $5,000 grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and a $500 grant from the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program.
 
The mural will be unveiled on Thursday, Aug. 25 during the Campus District’s E. 22nd Street Festival.
 
But organizers hope that the mural’s completion will not be the end of race discussions in the community. “It cannot be a one-and-done thing,” says Garth. “It took a long time to get there, so it’s going to take a long time to undo it.”
 
Geschke agrees. “People of all races would say race is not a problem,” she says, “but people also say this is just a start. Let’s look ahead and see what can be done. I think this is a good starting point.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 18 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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