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Imagining Art At San Diego Intersection Known For Death

Mario Lewis owns the Imperial Barbershop. He believes the public artwork prop...

Photo by Angela Carone / KPBS

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.

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."

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