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One Wall At A Time: Murals Transform San Diego’s Lincoln Park

Photo by Guillermo Sevilla / KPBS

Above: A mural at Gentry's Beauty & Barbershop Headquarters on Imperial Avenue in San Diego features leaders including Muhammad Ali and Maya Angelou.

A group of local artists help transform Imperial Avenue in Southeast San Diego with public art one wall at a time. The Urban Collaborative Project has brought them together with projects that continue to give back to the community.

What would it take to transform the Euclid and Imperial Avenue corridor into an art district in San Diego?

Barry Pollard wanted to find out.

“We didn’t have any public art,” Pollard said. “You go down Euclid nothing. You go down Imperial nothing.”

Pollard founded the Urban Collaborative Project. The nonprofit encourages civic engagement through leadership workshops. Graduates have successfully campaigned for more fresh food options for Lincoln Park and Valencia Park.

“I think it’s time people are ready to get re-engaged in their community,” said Pollard.

Now, Urban Collaborative is empowering artists, including muralist Michael Rosenblatt.

“The whole point of taking something and making it better and making it more beautiful is like the ultimate joy for any artist,” Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt donated a nautical twilight painting for workers to hang at Imperial Avenue Auto Service. He said he choose the wall so people who are in affordable apartments across the street can look out and see stars.

“And of course, if it’s in a neighborhood, when you see it every day, it’s going to have cumulative effects. Rather than seeing ugliness every day, you’re seeing something beautiful in the art,” Rosenblatt said. “So it’s my pleasure and my honor to do something like that for the people.”

Last fall, Rosenblatt and a group of artists, transformed a barren wall facing a vacant lot at Imperial Avenue and 50th Street. The wall became a canvas for a waterfront cityscape.

Another mural across Imperial Avenue featured leaders like Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and former San Diego City Councilman and activist George Stevens. The exterior walls of Gentry's Beauty & Barbershop Headquarters also includes the Gentry family.

“This is a family business first,” business owner Elijah Gentry said. “My mom and dad started it and now my brothers. So we’re second generation. So we need to show the same due diligence that they did on keeping everything going.”

Gentry said the art helps the business standout. He also said it shows the community that they have served for more than 50 years and they are here to stay.

“We wouldn’t have the chance to be here this long if the community didn’t support us," said Gentry. "So basically it’s something that we don’t mind putting back.”

The artists behind the Lincoln Park Community mural also plan to continue giving back. They formed the Southeast San Diego Encanto Arts Initiative.

The Urban Collaborative project is in talks with Civic San Diego to take responsibility for the vacant lot at Imperial Avenue and 50th Street.

The space has gone unused since 1996 when the old Valencia Park Library closed. It reopened as the Valencia Park Malcolm X library on Market Street.

“Because the battle is going to be with developers and what we want to do," Pollard said, "because they’re going to want to put another affordable unit house so they can make money."

Using mostly private donations, Pollard hopes to turn it into a community gathering space with benches, a small playground and a stage for people to share performance art.

Pollard said he believes public art projects not only beautify an area but also have healing powers.

“When you see these areas without art — apartment buildings, traffic, sirens going all the time police issues — that trauma builds up in people," Pollard said.

A Civic San Diego spokesperson said the city-owned nonprofit will lease the land to Urban Collaborative for three years.

After that, it is not clear how the space will fit into San Diego's overall neighborhood plan.

This area falls in San Diego’s Promise Zone, a federal designation that helps area improvement projects qualify for federal grants.

Pollard said he is optimistic about the community’s future. He hopes improvement projects include public art.

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