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August 16, 2009

Mural in Back-of-the-Yards designed to help reconcile

Violence is nothing new in the Back-of-the- Yards neighborhood, but a Precious Blood priest, a group of young men and other neighborhood residents are trying something new to change things: a few coats of paint, and artwork designed to bring people together.

The mural project is under way in a viaduct under train tracks at 49th and Throop.

“Forty-ninth and Throop — that’s a gang boundary as well as a racial boundary,” said Precious Blood Father David Kelly, who works in the congregation’s Ministry of Reconciliation. “There’s been a lot of shooting back and forth in that viaduct. We wanted to transform that into a symbol of unity and peace and hope.”

Youth from the community, both Latino and black, work on the project four days a week as part of a city summer jobs program. A group of mothers, known as “Mothers for Peace,” also contributed, especially with whitewashing the walls to prepare to paint them.

It was important, Kelly said, to get people from the neighborhood to make the mural. “I’m sure if I wanted to I could have gotten some arts group to come down and do it,” Kelly said. “The point was to bring people together in that place.”

In addition to the young people working on the mural, neighbors have contributed by bringing out their power washers and by allowing the group to run extension cords to their homes.

“Normally they see kids painting graffiti. Now they are painting signs of peace and hope,” Kelly said.

So far, the neighborhood seems to have bought into the project. While Kelly worked with the boys and young men who are painting on how to respond to any provocation from others, there have been few problems. Nearly a month after the project started, the viaduct has not been tagged with graffiti. Gang leaders from the neighborhood have let Kelly know they don’t intend to cause any problems with it.

“Clearly, they see it as something positive,” he said. That doesn’t mean it has always been easy. A group of girls and young women who were painting had to give up because they attracted too much attention from both sides of the viaduct, putting them squarely in the middle between groups of young men who don’t like each other. Occasionally, Kelly has had to ask higher-profile gang members to leave the area, even if they just came by to talk to him because their presence could provoke a threat.

Some of the young people who are working on the mural may have gang affiliations, Kelly said, but “they’re not the most visible of the gang members. They might not be known by face. They want to work, they want to go to school, they want to make some serious changes.”

The project grew out of the Society of the Precious Blood’s Ministry of Reconciliation, which includes serving as chaplains in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and following up with young people when they leave the detention center.

The mural project, whose images were designed by the young artists, is also allowing them to share their voices. Kelly said other groups pick up on the idea.

“This is something that can be replicated, transforming places that are places of division into places of unity,” he said. “Chicago is full of viaducts.”