More Murals & Public Art Decrease Crime, Increase Pride

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TOPEKA, Kansas (WIBW) -- This summer, you can expect much more color to pop up all over Topeka, thanks to various mural projects.

These murals are much more than writings on the wall - they're helping create a more vibrant and safe community.

"The arts in Topeka are really having a - I hate to say 'renaissance,' I think it sounds really dramatic - but it is. We have all this public art going up," Executive Director of ArtsConnect Topeka Sarah Fizell said.

Since last year, more community-made murals are replacing blank walls and graffiti, coloring various elementary schools and neighborhoods, such as Avondale East in Hi-Crest, Quincy Elementary, Meadows Elementary and Oakland. Many of these projects have held community paint days, such as Meadows Elementary, and invited anyone out to help out. Fizell said it's mainly about getting neighbors to meet one another.

"We've selected locations for these murals based on the fact that these are neighborhoods on their way up," Fizell said. "There are some kids who are in sometimes risky situations. This gives them the opportunity to feel like they can change the world with their hands."

Many are ArtsConnect projects,but other local artists are contributing, like Ashley Laird and the Great Mural Wall that's in progress behind the Expocentre, and Oakland native Andy Valdivia.

Laird's is the Women's Mural, the seventh addition to the Great Mural Wall, which started in 2007 by the Chesney Park Neighborhood Improvement Association. Laird is a Topeka native but lives in Lawrence now. She said doing murals in her hometown is more than beautification.

"It's about the way the mural looks, and equally about the way people work together to create it. When I found out about the community mural movement and in particular this project happening in my hometown my life changed," Laird said. "Growing up in Topeka I never thought I had a voice in anything. I didn't feel connected to the city. This project gave me direction."

Valdivia has contributed three murals to Oakland's Marlo Cuevas-Balandran Activity Center since the early 2000s. They depict Oakland's history, from ancient beginnings in Mexico to the development of Topeka and the Oakland neighborhood. His latest mural was completed in April and almost covers the span of the gym in the Activity Center. Andy said pride for his family drives his work.

"I guess that's what I'm trying to do, get people proud of their heritage, their culture, their families."

He said he's gotten all positive feedback about the new mural.

"I think they love it and expect more of it and I hope it continues."

Oakland, like some of the other mural locations, has higher crime rates. Valdivia agrees that it's important to put murals in those places to increase pride, but doesn't feel like it should be limited to only those neighborhoods.

With mural projects popping up all over Topeka, it not only adds a pop of color and pride to the community, it also decreases crime.

Last June, ArtsConnect partnered with the Topeka Police Department, Safe Streets Coalition and local artists Jaime Colon (who is working on Meadows) and Maria Guzman. They unveiled one of its first murals in Oakland at Lake & Seward.

Lieutenant Joe Perry said the police department collected crime stats before and after that mural went up. In the 6 months before the mural went up, 19 crimes were reported in a 1/4 mile radius around the mural location, 7 of which were graffiti. In the 6 months after the mural went up, 16 crimes were reported in a 1/4 mile radius around the mural location, 1 of which was graffiti.

"It's community-owned, that's why," Perry said. "The community was involved. As far as I'm concerned I hope it spreads like a virus and just inundates the city. I wouldn't mind seeing a mural every time I turn around."

Perry said it will be interesting to see what the crime stats are in the areas where the newer murals have gone up. He hopes the stats in Oakland carry over to those areas.

"There's a broken windows theory, if a window breaks and they don't fix it, pretty soon there's another window broken and a year down the road the house is falling apart and there's crime because no one cares. The opposite direction would be if you improve, everyone gets involved."

He noted that after the mural at Lake & Seward was unveiled, four houses in the area were repainted and yards improved.

The numbers help prove that when a city looks good, its people feel good and do good too, especially when they had a hand in creating it.

Eric Smith is one of the kids who went with his mother to the community paint at the Meadows Elementary wall last Saturday. He helped paint in the lines with green.

"It was fun! At first I thought I just wasn't an artist."

The Meadows Elementary mural is in progress, headed up by artists Justin Marable and Jaime Colon, and should be completed by the end of the summer. A dedication ceremony is planned when school starts.

Perry said the Topeka Police Department is considering community project in which graffiti artists can participate.

"There's a lot of amazing artists out here and unfortunately they're not painting what they could be painting legally. We'd like to help them out with that."

More projects are on the calendar for upcoming months. Fizell said they're working on painting more utility boxes around town.