Fighting vandalism with murals

imageBy Samantha Katzman

Ten years ago, when Scott Schmerelson arrived as the new principal of the school now called Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School, he knew he was facing a major challenge to turn around the school’s poor academic performance.

He also knew that he wouldn’t get very far until he fixed the school’s abysmal appearance, its exterior defaced by graffiti.

“I like things to look nice,” he said, “and when I came here and saw those awful looking pictures I said ‘we have to do something about this.’”

With test scores improving and kids more engaged in the classroom, there was only one thing missing among students and staff: morale. Enter Raul Baltazar.

imageThe school’s physical “rehabilitation” started with Schmerelson and Baltazar’s initial contact. At first, the concept was for Baltazar and his partner Melly Trochez to simply renovate the school, but with heavy backlash by taggers and vandals, it was decided that they would create entirely new works for and with the students.

With timing and funding on their side, the plan was set in motion for Baltazar to begin work on six murals around the school.

For Baltazar, a master of many mediums, murals have a special significance for him. He was inspired by the murals he describes as “eye candy” he saw every day on his walks to school growing up in El Sereno.

“It was a public practice to teach and exhibit,” he said.

Baltazar, Trochez, and a team of volunteers spent eight months designing and painting the murals. They wanted to depict concepts and ideas that spanned many cultures and ethnicities.

image“You don’t want to leave people isolated,” Baltazar said.

Chinese, Egyptian, Tibetan, Mexican, Mayan, Ndebele, Chumash, and Tonga cultures come together to paint a portrait of the modern urban landscape.

“Not only are we trying to beautify,” he said, “but as much as we have to create a presence, to transform the space.”

Baltazar has kept in contact with the school, and when the economy is more forgiving, would like even to do more work with them. But for now, the goal is to maintain the physical murals as well as maintaining the education for the children in the school.

What started as a desperate attempt to save a floundering school has resulted in a full-bodied makeover, improving more than just the kids’ test scores.

Before these changes, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School (previously Mt. Vernon Middle School) was in a state of decline. Test scores were so low, the school was almost kicked out of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Recruited by the superintendent at the time, during the last decade Schmerelson has been helping dig the school out of a load of troubles.

imageModernization and improvements to materials, class sizes and class structure has resulted in an increase of 200 points in the Academic Performance Index (API), with scores increasing every year. But Schmerelson didn’t stop there.

“Once you get in the swing of making things nice, you know you look around for what else you can make nice.”

Located on the fringe of the Crenshaw neighborhood, many of the students come from lower income, working families.

“They depend a lot on us,” he said.

Senior Lead Officer Pierre Olega of the Southwest LAPD division also knows how important murals can be to the public.

“They want them to represent the community,” he said, “The main focus is one, to beautify the community and two, to create something the community can relate to so they don’t vandalize it.”

Vandalism is still a problem, but a problem Schmerelson and Baltazar planned for. They set aside a large amount of the budget for Tradewinds Graffiti Guard, a coating that allows for graffiti to be removed without repainting.

“You still have kids who are outside of the school, who don’t have that connection to the school who don’t know to respect the murals,” said Schmerelson.

imageBaltazar was passionate about educating the children about the murals and their meaning so vandalism would not become a huge issue, and for the most part it was a success.

“Anything that the community embraces and takes as their own, they won’t vandalize,” said Officer Olega.

Schmerelson, passionate about the appearance and morale of the school, often does the work himself.

“Oh yeah he’ll be out there cleaning it,” said Sandra Belton, a Cochran Middle School faculty member.

“To me it’s a personal insult,” Schmerelson, “so when you see things like that when you come into work in the morning and see that graffiti it kind of turns your stomach.”

Susan G. Komen spreads awareness with a new store in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza

By Samantha Katzman

imageBack in October, the Susan G. Komen Brest Cancer Foundation opened one of its temporary PINK stores opened in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The store was only meant to stay open for about a month. But now, as March begins, the store is still there. The community response to the shop, which offers free breast cancer screenings and other health services, was so strong that the store is now open permanently.

PINK’s success is a point of pride for DaJuan Wilson, who has managed the shop since it opened. Wilson has seen the impact that a store like this can have in a community like Crenshaw.

“[We want] to bring awareness to the community,” he said, “to give information, which is awareness, products and support.”

“We saw the good that it did,” Wilson said about the decision to stay. “There’s a lot of people who were unaware and there’s a lot of people who needed the services that we have.”

Oliver Guillen, the mall manager, agreed. “It was so well received, and the owners of the mall feel that it is such a great service, especially in the area that we’re in,” Guillen said.

The store provides mammogram screening to uninsured women over 40 years old. Wilson knows there is a lack of information given to people in low-income minority areas like Crenshaw, and his role gives him the means to educate the community.

The center provides screenings every Saturday for three hours in the afternoon. It has seen hundreds of women who have filled up their appointment slots. The screening results are sent by mail to the homes of the clients, and their information is kept completely confidential. Some women, Wilson said, have come in thanking them for the screening. The store reaches groups of people who may otherwise not receive these tests.

image“Black and Hispanic communities are really affected with certain things like diabetes and cancer so on and so forth,” Guillen said. “They have limited resources available to them to be able to really diagnose, treat, and ask questions even.” It’s important to keep PINK open to give area residents who are without healthcare, or struggling financially, time to find their way to it and the services it offers, he said.

“I know a lot of ladies on welfare that could use this service,” said local resident and mall regular Dolores Powell.

Wilson makes sure everyone who enters to shop is made aware of the range of services PINK offers.

Wilson might not appear the most likely advocate for women’s health. He is a personal trainer, and stands over six feet tall with a strong, muscular build and kind eyes. A mobile training program takes him from his home in Crenshaw to the far-flung corners of Los Angeles. He says he has constant interactions with every stripe of resident throughout the city, which has heightened his awareness to the need for a proactive approach to breast cancer — which crosses every racial and economic line.

His passion for health and for keeping women informed about their well-being is only part of the reason he is so passionate about Susan G. Komen and the cause.

“My auntie and grandmother both had breast cancer,” he said. The late detection of their illnesses and their untimely deaths is a driving force behind his commitment to getting women screened for breast cancer early and often.

Wilson is inspired by the positive feedback the store immediately gained.

“There are still a lot of people that don’t know about this store,” Wilson said, “so we are trying to reach out to people who don’t know.”

The commitment of PINK to remain in the mall indefinitely is crucial to its impact, he said, as many residents have yet to discover it.

“I didn’t even know that store was there,” said Dolores Powell, “But it will definitely help the community.”