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Imagining Art At San Diego Intersection Known For Death

Above: Mario Lewis owns the Imperial Barbershop. He believes the public artwork proposed for the intersection of Euclid and Imperial Avenues will transform the neighborhood.

It’s a Friday morning at the Imperial Barbershop in southeast San Diego's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Aired 11/15/13 on KPBS News.

Since the 1980s, an intersection in Southeast San Diego ‘s Lincoln Park has been the scene of drugs and gang violence. It’s the "Four Corners of Death." But now there’s hope a new pubic artwork will transform the intersection.

All the chairs are full. The clippers make a constant buzz. Black-and-white photographs of protest marches hang on the walls. T-shirts featuring Trayvon Martin are for sale. And rapper Racon Campbell, who goes by "Proposition," freestyles from a bench along the wall.

"My business has doubled in size," said Mario Lewis, who steps away from the shop for a moment to talk. He's owned the barbershop since 2006. Lewis wears a beaded necklace with African colors. He's an activist and community leader in this neighborhood.

He grew up in Skyline and his kids go to school here. Lewis says he wants to see the neighborhood change for the better. He believes that change starts at the intersection of Euclid and Imperial Avenues, long known as the "Four Corners of Death."

"That history has been there since the mid-80s when the crack cocaine era was prevalent in this community," Lewis explained. "That’s where everybody used to hang out at one point."

Lewis goes on to describe how one of his customers, a friend, was shot dead at that crossroads. He wasn't involved in drugs or gangs, the usual source of violence in the area.

This history makes the intersection an unlikely place for public art, but that’s just what the San Diego Museum of Art is proposing. Community members like Lewis think it could make a difference. "Especially where they’re talking about putting it because that's going to be the beginning of the transformation of this community, right there in that spot. That’s ground zero," Lewis said.

This is what the light piece will look like when it's finished.

The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to put public art in four underserved neighborhoods. They chose Lincoln Park, Logan Heights, National City and Lemon Grove. Each project is slated to take six months and has a budget of $30,000.

Instead of a committee of art experts choosing an artist's proposed project for each neighborhood, the residents of the community come up with the site for the work and what the piece will look like. Lincoln Park was the first neighborhood, so SDMA held a series of meetings with its residents.

"We created a dialogue with them. We asked what does this community need, what would you like to see?" said Irma Esquivias, project coordinator for SDMA.

Roughly two dozen people attended each meeting. They were very clear that they did NOT want to see the kind of artwork that normally gets placed in low-income neighborhoods. "They were not really wanting to see a mural. They didn’t want to see a mural and have to pick out their ethnicity or their representation," Esquivias said.

They also worried about which colors would end up on the artwork. "In our neighborhood we have the red, the blue and the green, three different gangs that represent different colors," said Jaqueline Penhos, who lives in the neighborhood and went to the meetings.

After six public meetings and many discussions, the community arrived at an idea for the location and artwork: A simple string of white LED lights, strung high on a cable, from corner pole to corner pole. It would create a square halo of light over the "Four Corners of Death."

Jacqueline Penhos said the piece they arrived at is inspiring. "That piece is now going to represent the four corners of life, the four corners of love, the four corners of anything that is positive and uplifting," Penhos said.

I join Roberto Salas, principal artist for the project, at the corner of Imperial and Euclid. There's a Greens Liquor store on one corner, a mini mart and church on another, and a taco stand across the street. The intersection is definitely busy, and traffic is not letting up.

Salas helped guide the community discussions, working with attendees to refine their ideas. He's proud of the light piece they came up with. "It's simple and effective, and outside the box," Salas said.

Salas said when the piece is finally installed in this neighborhood, it will be "artistic justice."

"How many of these neighborhoods have had any attention as an art designation? None. And we need that. The majority of these people are equal in paying taxes and they should have the same amenities that every other city has," Salas said.

Any public artwork proposed for city property has to go through an extensive approval process that can take four to six months.

Dana Springs is the Interim Executive Director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. She also manages the public art program for the city. She’s excited to see the final proposal, which she's been waiting for since September, but worries the approval process could be challenging. "My guess is it’s more complicated because it’s located where there’s a high amount of vehicular traffic," Springs said.

The light piece will have to be approved by the city’s traffic and engineering department and maybe even the airport authority because it's a light source under a flight path.

This bureaucratic phase in the birth of any public artwork can be demoralizing, especially if you’ve spent the last few months in the heady idea phase. That's where Jaqueline Penhos has been, dreaming about what's possible, not about how to make it happen. She says the light piece at the "Four Corners of Death" will give the neighborhood hope.

"Art is important in this community, so it can live. So it can grow. So it doesn’t die."

Comments

Avatar for user 'x76'

x76 | November 15, 2013 at 8:39 a.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Seriously?

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | November 15, 2013 at 12:05 p.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

"There's a Greens Liquor store on one corner, a mini mart and church on another, and a taco stand across the street. The intersection is definitely busy, and traffic is not letting up."

That would be the Greene Cat liquor store. You used to be able to buy bean pies from Nation of Islam members on that corner. Avant garde art at the corner of Euclid and Imperial. Wow!

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 15, 2013 at 12:20 p.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Lets see here...

"T-shirts featuring Trayvon Martin are for sale. And rapper Racon Campbell, who goes by "Proposition," freestyles from a bench along the wall."

So they have t-shirts featuring a violent thug who attempted to murder someone, and some guy sitting out front rapping to himself. I see people attempting to freestyle rap around downtown. They always appear to be on drugs and dangerous.

Definitely a place law abiding citizens would not feel comfortable in.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | November 15, 2013 at 1:40 p.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Would it make a difference if he were humming Lee Greenwood songs? By the way, in light of George Zimmerman's recent troubles and revelations about his character, Trayvon Martin has been exonerated in the Court of Public Opinion.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 15, 2013 at 2:32 p.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Sorry, Trayvon has not been exonerated in my opinion. It is not ok to try to kill someone by bashing their head into the sidewalk just because they walk behind you on public property.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | November 15, 2013 at 2:44 p.m. ― 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I suppose you're one of the ones who believe O.J. Simpson didn't do it. Zimmerman provoked Martin. That's indisputable. Had he possessed the capacity to control the situation, both physically and mentally, he would've been paid to protect citizens instead of being relegated to doing it for free in a gated neighborhood of tract homes.

Back to the corner of Euclid and Imperial ...

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 18, 2013 at 11:34 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Zimmerman provoked Trayvon to attempt to murder him? Sorry but you aren't allowed to kill someone for following you on public property. Are you totally psychotic? Why would anyone think that following someone down the sidewalk is justifiable provocation for attempted murder? Unbelievable.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | November 18, 2013 at 12:26 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Yes, JM. I'm totally psychotic. Do you know any of the facts surrounding the case or are you trying to be funny? Zimmerman was told by a dispatcher NOT to confront Martin yet did it anyway. His statements to the dispatcher, disregard for her advice and attitude make it plausible and highly likely that Zimmerman provoked Martin.

In fact, judging by your comments, you and Zimmerman share a characteristic: You see "rappers" and minorities as curious, two-dimensional objects. You think that someone freestylin' a rap is a murderer-in-training. Zimmerman thought he could harass Martin and project his racism onto him without repercussions. He was mistaken.

The people who live in Mid-City San Diego are real human beings, regardless of their musical and artistic choices. They, like you, want the best for their neighborhood and children.

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | November 18, 2013 at 1:41 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

"So they have t-shirts featuring a violent thug who attempted to murder someone, and some guy sitting out front rapping to himself."

Someone could interpret that as an attempt to express one's desire for justice, and an attempt to express one's thoughts and feelings through poetry. I guess prejudices can cloud a broader perspective.

"I see people attempting to freestyle rap around downtown. They always appear to be on drugs and dangerous."

Do you even realize how sheltered you sound?

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 18, 2013 at 2:21 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Poetry? Sorry, but some drugged out pot head mumbling and slurring curse words together is not what I call poetry. I call it trash.

I sound sheltered? I thought I sounded rather exposed. Exposed to dangerous violent drug users who wallow in their own excrement, fight imaginary people, and scream and yell and harass people around them. How do I know they are drug users? I see them smoking meth, crack, marijuana, and using needles. Yes, I have seen all of these things several times. I have also seen homeless men fully exposed while urinating or defecating on the sidewalk in broad daylight.

Are these just poets?

About the trayvon shirts, I don't think it is an expression of a desire for justice, it is an expression of a desire for racial inequality where someone is thrown in jail for defending himself against a violent killer.

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Avatar for user 'jatron'

jatron | November 18, 2013 at 6:04 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

@jeanmarc I specifically remember only one person involved in that trial being a murderer. It wasn't trayvon, and trayvon was not there to testify...since he was murdered by zimmerman. So what are you talking about? I see you talking alot about what people do.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | November 19, 2013 at 7:34 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Zimmerman was arrested on 11/18/13 for pointing a shotgun at his girlfriend. He's having a hard time of things since provoking then murdering a teenage boy in Florida. Lucky for him, his lawyer used his own particular brand of freestylin' on the jury.

The art installation is a fresh idea. I'm sure it'll be nice when it's finished.

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | November 19, 2013 at 10:09 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

"Poetry? Sorry, but some drugged out pot head mumbling and slurring curse words together is not what I call poetry. I call it trash."

The reason for my previous post was to call attention to your lack of perspective. The fact you keep cherry-picking the most negative aspects as your argument is reaffirming the notion.

"I sound sheltered? I thought I sounded rather exposed. Exposed to dangerous violent drug users who wallow in their own excrement, fight imaginary people, and scream and yell and harass people around them. How do I know they are drug users? I see them smoking meth, crack, marijuana, and using needles. Yes, I have seen all of these things several times. I have also seen homeless men fully exposed while urinating or defecating on the sidewalk in broad daylight."

What were the circumstances that exposed you to all this? I've seen drug use and mental illness throughout society. Just because some people don't have the financial means to adequately address their problems, all of a sudden they deserve our scorn? I don't even understand what this has to do with the barbershop. You just want to hate everyone at once. You have to pace yourself...

"Are these just poets?"

You'll never know with your closed mind and judgmental attitude.

"About the trayvon shirts, I don't think it is an expression of a desire for justice, it is an expression of a desire for racial inequality where someone is thrown in jail for defending himself against a violent killer."

Without getting too off-topic, you know as well as I do that what happened that night is contentious.

So how can you say, with any sort of certainty, what those shirts represent? Have you even bothered to ask anyone that owns/sells/wears one what it means to them?

(See now why I say you're sheltered?)

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 19, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Anon the circumstances that exposed me to all the dangerous psychotic drug addicts were these: I was walking to buy food at lunch, I was walking to my car after work, I was walking to work from my car in the morning, etc.

I don't know why you seem to think this is a problem of finances. These people made very poor choices in life that lead to homelessness. Some did not even make a choice, they are schizophrenic. No amount of money will help these people, they would just use it to buy more drugs. Putting them in rehab wouldn't help, they would just use drugs once they got out.

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | November 19, 2013 at 11:09 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

"Anon the circumstances that exposed me to all the dangerous psychotic drug addicts were these: I was walking to buy food at lunch, I was walking to my car after work, I was walking to work from my car in the morning, etc."

So your interactions with them were basically surface-level, fleeting observations. Reminds me of Bill Frist diagnosing Terry Schiavo. You're like a book critic who never makes it past the cover. Sheltered.

"I don't know why you seem to think this is a problem of finances. These people made very poor choices in life that lead to homelessness."

Listen to that generalization. "These people". Everyone makes poor choices. Some of us just don't have the help or resources to bounce back. How do you know they weren't wards of the state, abused by their foster families, denied an education, and left to fend for themselves at 18?

It's disgusting how you don't even consider that people may have had less opportunities than yourself. You wouldn't even know it, though, because you just walk by people and make nasty presumptions based on surface-level observations. How do you rationalize this behavior to yourself?

"Some did not even make a choice, they are schizophrenic. No amount of money will help these people, they would just use it to buy more drugs. Putting them in rehab wouldn't help, they would just use drugs once they got out."

Are you serious? Money would buy them healthcare, and medication to help their condition. What planet are you from?

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Avatar for user 'bobmatheny'

bobmatheny | November 19, 2013 at 11:51 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

i thought this good story was about public art and the proposed art project at euclid and imperial. what do people think about roberto's solution to the problem?

bob matheny

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | November 19, 2013 at 12:14 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

I think the light will be distracting, and add an air of glamour to an infamous area.

$30k could be spent on an extra police officer in the area, or at a local school.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 19, 2013 at 1:53 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

So if I see a guy smoking crack out of a crack pipe, or a guy fully exposed and defecating onto the wall of a business in downtown, I do not have enough evidence to judge that they made some poor choices in life?

The leftist mindset is unreal.

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | November 19, 2013 at 3:58 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

The dictionary defines art as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

So, I'm having a hard time seeing how this $30,000 (OMGoodness) little string of white lights fits the definition. I make better "art" every year around the perimeter of my apartment balcony with my $10 strings of multi-colored, Walmart Christmas lights.

I laughed out loud when I realized that the lights are white specifically because they cannot be red, blue or green in that neighborhood. We are investing $30,000 into this dangerous little gang-infested area of the community because somehow art will make things better, yet at the same time, we are respecting the local street thugs code of honor by not using any of their colors? This is so silly. In all honesty, the only good I can imagine coming out of this art project is that perhaps the lights will be bright enough to deter crime a little. But I doubt it. The "art" will probably be destroyed by the gangs within six months, or spray painted over with red, blue or green translucent paint.

For what it's worth, I went to get a haircut at a barber shop very similar to this one (not this particular one, but another very near by) because I wanted to have a cultural experience. I barely got through the door and the barber yelled out to me "yo, I cain't cut yo hair". When I asked why not, he told me it's because I'm not black, and he doesn't know how to cut my hair. I think he just didn't like the way my hair was styled with mousse.

Lastly, my two cents - Zimmerman was acquitted and Trayvon looked like the scary kids that used to bully me in school. Not much to argue about.

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Avatar for user 'Anon11'

Anon11 | November 19, 2013 at 7:15 p.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

"So if I see a guy smoking crack out of a crack pipe, or a guy fully exposed and defecating onto the wall of a business in downtown, I do not have enough evidence to judge that they made some poor choices in life?"

The problem is, you take extreme examples and apply it to a larger group of people. Do all homeless people smoke crack and defecate on walls? Of course not.

All you're doing is trying to muddy the argument by using the worst possible examples. It would be like me saying all Christians are evil because I've seen the Westboro Church on TV.

Do me a favor: Answer my questions. I'm decent enough to quote and reply to pretty much everything you've written. I don't see why you're incapable of doing the same. Avoiding questions and trying to use extreme examples does not mean your argument has any more merit. You shouldn't have to sneak your way into victory. Don't hide from the hard questions from the opposition. If anything, your inability or unwillingness to answer the hard questions should be a strong clue that maybe your position isn't as defensible as you may have presumed.

"The leftist mindset is unreal."

Is it? I wouldn't know. I'm not a "leftist" or whatever stupid label you want to attach to me.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | November 20, 2013 at 9:36 a.m. ― 8 months, 1 week ago

Doesn't a leftist, by any other name, smell just as bad?

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