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San Diego’s Black Arts & Culture District aims to empower and heal

Walk into the World Famous Imperial Barber Shop, and it's chock-full of paintings, photographs and artifacts that pay homage to Black history in San Diego and beyond.

The shop sits in the heart of the recently designated Black Arts & Culture district in Encanto.

“We’re wanting this community to actually grow. And art is the foundation of most growth,” said shop owner Tau Baraka.

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Jacob Aere
A mural of Huey Newton holding a gun is painted on the wall behind The World Famous Imperial Barber Shop, Aug. 31, 2022.

The artwork at his business isn’t just inside the shop. The back parking lot features some of the district’s largest art pieces to date.

“We’ve actually had artists come out here to paint certain arts about our expression of where we’re at mentally and culturally,” Baraka told KPBS. “So what you see … is basically a whole thing of just different artists that come out from southeast San Diego that are very talented.”

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Jacob Aere
A mural with civil rights activist Elbert Howard is painted on the wall behind The World Famous Imperial Barber Shop, Aug. 31, 2022.

There's already art all over the district and it comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, according to local artist Kim Phillips-Pea.

She’s painted murals on Imperial Avenue and in surrounding areas on electrical boxes and building walls.

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Jacob Aere
An electrical box is painted with outdoor scenery along Imperial Avenue, Aug. 31, 2022.

When the arts district became official in June, Phillips-Pea was overwhelmed with emotion.

“I was crying — tears of joy of course. And the reason why is just because we see in other communities, like you go to Chicano Park, you immediately know where you are,” the artist said. “You feel the sense of culture, you feel the sense of pride and so that is something that I’ve always felt we deserve and we need.”

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Jacob Aere
The outside of a building is painted with flowers and greenery along Imperial Avenue in Encanto, Aug. 31, 2022.

The new cultural district covers nine blocks along Imperial Avenue, from 61st to 69th Street, including Marie Widman Memorial Park. That same part of town that once hosted summertime street fairs.

“[There were] vendors from one end to the other, headliner bands — and just everybody would come out here in this wonderful weather in America's favorite city and just enjoy each other," Dajahn Blevins said, remembering past events. "This park became the staple of that and we want to bring that back.”

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Jacob Aere
A mural depicts footprints with different colored paisley designs all under one crown, Aug. 31, 2022.

Blevins is the CEO of the nonprofit organization Urban Warriors, which looks to empower African American youth through performing arts.

Blevins said San Diego used to be known as “Harlem of the West” and he hopes it’ll soon be that again.

“If we don't do this on purpose, create an epicenter where people can come on a common ground — and see people who look like them, see hair that looks like [mine], hear music that speaks of us — you can kind of forget who you are,” he said.

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Jacob Aere
A mural of an African American Rosie the Riveter is painted on a fence along Imperial Avenue, Aug. 31, 2022.

The arts district is part of San Diego City Council District Four, represented by council member Monica Montgomery Steppe.

“We’re talking about preserving history,” the Council President pro tem said. “This is the district that historically has housed the African American community in San Diego. This is the district that experienced the redlining. This is the district where we formed community.”

The designation means funding to improve store fronts, enhance landscaping and support small, Black-owned businesses as well as adding freeway signage.

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Jacob Aere
A mural of the late Nipsey Hussel is painted onto a wall at Encanto's mural alley, Aug. 31, 2022.

Grant funding will be overseen by the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art, which is forming an advisory council to get community input.

Gaidi Finnie is the museum’s executive director.

“A lot of times when people come to San Diego, they wonder where the Black community is. I mean many people have that problem. So having an area to be designated and redeveloped gives us that designation for people to be proud of the area,” he said.

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Jacob Aere
A mural of a female civil rights leader is painted on a fence along Imperial Avenue, Aug. 31, 2022.

Finnie said the district will launch a website for the advisory board in the next two weeks.

Phillips-Pea plans to provide her voice and vision for the district’s evolution. She told KPBS what she’d like to see change:

“A little bit of everything from storefront improvement, I'd like to see infrastructure changes as far as driving down Imperial, beautification when it comes to just the landscaping, trees — definitely more murals,” Phillips-Pea said. “We just want to see love poured into the area.”

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Jacob Aere
A large mural of famous civil rights leaders covers a wall behind The World Famous Imperial Barber Shop, Aug. 31, 2022.

Back at the World Famous Imperial Barber Shop, Tau Baraka said he’s already starting to see the community’s economic growth and is looking forward to the healing that the designation can bring.

“You have to have a culture to build a community or it will always be a hood. So the cultural part of it has to come — whether its arts, whether its sports — there has to be something there that people can grab a hold of. And I believe that art is like the universal message for bringing people together,” Baraka said.

Right now, art is bringing people together at Marie Widman Memorial Park on the last weekend of each month. The park will be one of the first places in the district to see upgrades.

I report on City Heights and communities south of the Interstate 8 freeway. My beat covers housing, transportation, census and immigration policy, and a number of other issues important to these neighborhoods. No matter the topic, I seek the overlooked voices of these diverse communities to tell their stories.
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