Jamaica Plain

Public art work bridges a violent past and an optimistic future
By Diana Schoberg

Jesús Gerena stands at the storefront of the Hyde Square Task Force, 375 Centre St., just a few blocks from Mozart Park.

Jesús Gerena, community organizer at the Hyde Square Task Force, stands in Mozart Park in the heart of the Hyde/Jackson square community. “Basically everything that you see here in JP, this whole area was known [in the 1980s] as the coke capital of Boston,” he explains, waving his hand toward Centre Street. “You had kids shooting and killing each other all over the place.”

The mural in Mozart Park is a bridge, telling the story of this violent history while speaking of a hopeful future.

Originally painted in 1987 by artists from Boston and Nicaragua through a program called “Arts for a New Nicaragua,” the mural was updated in 2001 by youth from the Hyde Square Task Force.

The mural shows scenes from the Central American countryside.

In the mural, George Washington stands next to conga players, illustrating the diversity of the area. Tropical fish and dancers hint at the Central American roots of the community. “It was representative of the Central American life,” Gerena explained.

The images in the mural meander through the Central American countryside back to the city. People stand next to a fire truck holding a hose putting out a fire. A “matchstick man” symbolizes landlords who in the late ‘80s burned down their own houses to collect insurance money.

“Matchstick man” and “Monopoly man” are side by side in the mural, representing housing crises in the 1980s and today.

“During the time this was built people were being burned out of their houses. This was a slum, in a sense,” Gerena said. “A lot of people still consider it to be a pretty nasty place to live in, but as you can tell, it’s not.”

During the 2001 renovation of the mural, a “monopoly man” was added next to the matchstick man on the mural. “Now we don’t have the case of people being burned out of their houses,” Gerena said. “They’re being priced out of their houses.”

Puzzle pieces added during the refurbishing speak to the future. The Jackson Square Coordinating Group has made building a youth center a top priority, along with affordable housing and small-scale commercial development. “We’re the only community in Boston without a major…Boys and Girls Club or a YMCA,” Gerena said, “so we obviously are not providing enough for young people.”

The Hyde Square Task Force hosts summer programs in Mozart Park, which has been an area notorious for crime. In fact, the Hyde Square Task Force was incorporated as a non-profit after the 1991 dedication of the Mozart park playground went awry, Gerena says. As the mayor, the police commissioner and other dignitaries stood by for the ceremony, a mother of four standing outside the front door to her home was caught in the middle of a gunfire exchange between two teenagers. The woman, who worked two jobs and had no health insurance, was paralyzed from the waist down.

The renovation of the Mozart Park mural in 2001 was an effort to stem crime, in addition to a desperately needed update to what was then a 14-year-old piece of art. “There was a need to get people in the park to keep people safe,” explains Roxan McKinnon, the artist who headed the refurbishing.

Crime may be down from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but the work’s not done. “We still have a lot of young people hurting themselves and each other, like we have in the past three weeks in Jackson and Ruggles,” Gerena says, referring to separate incidents in which two teens were stabbed, one fatally, at MBTA stations on their way to school.

As he walks down Centre Street back to the Hyde Square Task Force storefront to finish his workday, Gerena stops every few blocks to shout greetings to youth he knows.

“It gives you a purpose as to why you’re working in this community,” he reflects, as the sun shines, the Latin music pulsates from cars, and the aroma of spices wafts from the many restaurants in the area. “You walk up and down this street, you can’t help but smile.”


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