Following a deadly shooting at the corner earlier this year, neighbors decided it was time to do more than emphasis patrols and increased policing. Some pundits made fun of a push for better environmental design as part of the answer to gun violence in the Central District. But neighbors are pushing forward. After welcoming the El Costeno food truck, the former Shell gas station parking lot on the corner of Union and 21st is becoming home to a new community mural as part of efforts to make the corner safer for everybody.
“Although it’s not written explicitly, my mural will make the statement that people who live here care about their neighborhood and are making efforts to maintain it,” said Gabrielle Abbott, the artist commissioned for the mural. “The artwork occupies the space so people don’t feel like it’s a space they can use for illegal or unwanted activities.”
Efforts to improve the corner are a result of surrounding area residents’ concerns of illegal activity after multiple instances of gun violence and the deadly shooting. Healthy Youth Central Area Network (HYCAN), a Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative supported by Seattle Public Schools, joined efforts to make positive use of the corner by supporting the mural project. The organization aims to support a community mural on a yearly basis.
Along with HYCAN’s involvement, the nonprofit, the Seattle Neighborhood Group, and the city are looking to ensure safe and positive use of the corner. According to Emily Lieberman, a Central District resident who lives near the corner, Seattle Neighborhood Group is also supporting the mural project along with HYCAN.
“The group’s idea for the corner involves finding a way to bring more art to Seattle,” said Lieberman. “There’s a lot of really beautiful public art in the CD, so it’s a contribution to that, and an effort to make positive use of the space to discourage negative uses of the space.”
According to neighbors, Seattle Police recommended examining potential environmental adjustments that could be made at the intersection, SDOT is working on improving traffic flow in the area, and Seattle City Light made sure the lot’s lighting was “adequate.” Seattle Neighborhood Group will also be conducting a formal analysis of crime prevention through environmental design.
The property on the southwest corner of 21st and Union is a one-time gas station that is now owned by Uncle Ike’s founder Ian Eisenberg with plans for eventual development.
Lieberman appreciates the variety of efforts to integrate the corner into the surrounding neighborhood believing each approach serves as an alternative to increased police presence when decreasing gun violence on 21st and Union.
“It remains to be seen if efforts like this will be successful, but the effort itself is important in seeking different types of alternative and effective solutions to the problem of gun violence,” Lieberman said. “This is one of the many efforts to find an effective alternative solution to the problem of gun violence in the CD.”
Abbott echoed Lieberman’s statement and hopes her ten years of experience working as a muralist and public artist can make a lasting contribution. Abbott has completed murals for HYCAN before, painting murals at Washington Middle School, Garfield High School, and several other locations throughout the CD. Specializing in turning her murals into community projects, Abbott describes most of her murals as “coloring books,” where she paints outlines of certain elements of the mural, then invites the public to join her in filling in the blank spaces.
“There are a lot of studies showing when an urban area has murals in it, crime, property destruction, vandalization, and unwanted graffiti decrease because murals are a symbol people care for their community, and make people think about the people living there,” Abbott said.
The mural’s symbolic qualities extend beyond the process of painting it, as the finished work will display motifs of peace, inclusion, and empowerment. According to Abbott, the mural depicts an African American woman’s face.
“I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the strength of women of color. I like using my art to provide positive representation for people who don’t often get enough representation in the media,” said Abbott.
Abbott said the face is surrounded by mandalas, symbols of unity and peace frequently used in Asian and Islamic art. Incorporating mandalas into the mural also provided the opportunity for Abbott to invite community members to fill in the designs.
Stephanie Tschida, a coordinator for HYCAN understands both facets of the effort to claim positive space on the corner, as Tschida contacted Abbott while organizing the mural project and showed up to paint mandalas with her grandchildren. According to Tschida, HYCAN works towards its main goal of preventing youth drug use by engaging with individuals, families, and communities. Murals fall into the organization’s community level of outreach, but Abbott’s “coloring book” style mural addresses each of HYCAN’s forms of engagement.
“Neighbors see each other, and if they feel good about their neighborhood they’re more inclined to participate in neighborhood activities,” said Tschida. “The young people that work on it will have that positive recognition for years. I took my grandkids over there to work on it, and now they’ll remember they did their part and it’s valuable.”
Along with the mural and mural painters, the El Costeno food truck moved to the lot, leaving its longtime home East of the corner outside Uncle Ike’s on Union and 23rd. Moises Santos, the truck’s owner, noted El Costeno has moved to 21st and Union for good after a long run in front of the nearby Uncle Ike’s, and has enjoyed watching the mural come to fruition.
“The mural includes the whole community, and it’s beautiful,” Santos said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, with all the kids, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all here contributing to an art piece that’ll be here for years to come, and for all of us to enjoy while we wait for our food.”
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