Art Restoration: Project replaces blight with art, education | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Art Restoration: Project replaces blight with art, education

"It's just artwork, but it can hold a lot of power."

click to enlarge Kyle Holbrook is using art to clean up blight in the Hill District - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG
Kyle Holbrook is using art to clean up blight in the Hill District

Pittsburgh's Hill District is getting a makeover -- one abandoned building at a time.

Starting July 5, a team of professional artists and roughly 200 Hill District students will spend a month using paintbrushes to fight neighborhood blight. The Broken Windows Project, named after the criminological theory that blight breeds crime, is billed by artists as a way to turn eyesores into artwork, while teaching students about the history of the Hill.

"We are always looking for ways to do something social through art," says Kyle Holbrook, executive artist for the MLK Community Mural Project. "This is cleaning up the community."

Holbrook, well known for his murals all around the city, says Broken Windows began on a smaller scale last summer under the name Windows of Hope. With the help of city officials and local historians, he says organizers identified 75 vacant buildings -- many slated for demolition -- worthy of an artistic facelift. 

About 100 Hill District students then spent time researching their historic neighborhood's past -- from jazz greats like Lena Horne to famous playwright August Wilson -- and then recreated that history lesson on plywood. Holbrook says they finished enough artwork to cover the first floor of 22 Hill District buildings, including August Wilson's dilapidated childhood home, on Bedford Avenue. 

Two large murals cover the first floor of the Wilson home -- one featuring a child's rendering of the playwright's face peering over a white picket fence, a reference to his Pulitzer-winning play Fences. Next door, an abandoned building now boasts a mural paying homage to the Pittsburgh Courier, complete with a typewriter painted above the historic black newspaper's name. 

"[The artwork] is really beautiful," says Kim Ellis, executive director of the Historic Hill Institute, who praises the project's emphasis on history. "It makes structures that appear to be worthless worthy again."

In addition to the 200 Hill students, Holbrook's team includes a dozen professional artists, interns from local universities and volunteers from Teach for America. This summer, Holbrook says, they plan to paint murals for the remaining 53 buildings on their to-do list, as well as finish the upper floors of the 22 buildings they started last year. He says most of the buildings are located on Wylie and Bedford avenues. 

Although many of the buildings are slated for demolition, it could be years before some of them finally meet a wrecking ball. "While the buildings are here, we might as well beautify them," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill. "It's a very worthwhile project." 

"It gives [the community] a sense of pride and a sense of hope. It shows that progress is being made," says Samantha Davis, project manager for Broken Windows. "It seems small -- it's just artwork -- but it can hold a lot of power." 

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