NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – One mural, practically ripped from today’s headlines, honors those in the city who have continued to serve as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, retreated and returned.
The other mural traces a timeline of the French Street commercial corridor and the waves of immigrants who made their way here over the generations in search of a better life.
Two murals with two divergent focuses. But, what these murals, unveiled last week at a virtual event hosted by New Brunswick Tomorrow, coLAB Arts and the Esperanza Neighborhood Project, have in common is that they are bright, building-sized canvases created with the help of residents to tell the story of the residents and reflect it back to the residents.
“These murals as well as the other ones we've completed over the past few years have really come to mean a lot to the community,” said Charles Bergman, Director of the Esperanza Neighborhood Project. “For one, they are always developed in close consultation with community members themselves and are inspired by community stories. So, when people see these murals, not only do they add beauty and color and vibrancy to their surroundings, but oftentimes they can see part of their own personal story and their culture reflected back to them in these images.”
Heroes Entre Nosotros (Heroes Among Us) was created by Duda Penteado with the help of several of the city’s children. Located at 314 Handy St., the mural features KN-95 masks designed by sudents from coLAB Arts’ Summer Institute, Mercado Esperanza, Esperanza Neighborhood Project, Civic League of New Brunswick, and McKinley Community School.
Leon Rainbow’s Latido del Corazōn de la Ciudad (Heartbeat of the City) is located on the Prospect Street side of 111 French St. and was created in partnership with the Esperanza Neighborhood Project of New Brunswick Tomorrow.
Production on the mural on the side of Kim’s Bike Shop was delayed when COVID-19 hit and halted scheduled meetings with various residents who were to give their input into the project, said Daniel Swern, Producing Director at CoLABs.
When meetings that were finally held in the summer as the pandemic waned, an idea was hatched that Latido del Corazōn de la Ciudad should speak to the unique identity of the French Street business district that sets it apart from the corporate-backed one on George Street or the student-backed one on Easton Avenue.
Swern said what used to be Hungarian and Polish restaurants and businesses have largely become Latino, Oaxacan, Colombian and Peruvian ones over the decades. In the planning process, the new immigrants pushed to incorporate the stories of the immigrants who came before them.
“And what's been great about working with the Esperanza neighborhood is that they are very sophisticated in thinking about issues related to immigration, and it's not just the story of how they're treated in their identity,” he said. “It's understanding how do people participate in a system characterized as a port-of-call city. So, where the residents of New Brunswick have always been immigrants, they are looking not only to strengthen themselves, but they're looking to strengthen the way our community responds to the people who'll be coming after them because there's a full expectation that as generations go by, there will be a new wave of immigration and New Brunswick largely received those individuals in large number.”
The piece even includes a nod to the Melody and other bygone bars, restaurants and shops that called the neighborhood home.
Penteado’s Heroes Entre Nosotros, which graces the side of Costa Chica Restaurant, was created in direct response to what is going on in the community during the pandemic. Some of the individual tiles decorated by New Brunswick students give thanks to health care heroes and others in the community. Others reflect the students' fear and isolation in the face of a pandemic.
“They did virtual workshops with the artists at coLABS to kind of think about the artistic process and to reflect on their experience to the pandemic,” Bergman said. “They each created those tiles using a mask to express themselves. Over 100 of those were incorporated into the overall mural design, which Duda Penteado created.”
Some of the tiles, however, are imbued by images of birds and glittering sunrises and hope.
After all, it is Esperanza.