Talking Gun Violence, Gentrification, Art and Peace With The Port: Uncovered

community art centerCommunity Art Center teens get ready to talk gentrification in Clement Morgan park. Photos courtesy of the Community Art Center.

Teens at the Community Art Center spent the summer tackling tough topics with their neighbors.

If you found yourself grabbing lunch in Kendall Square or strolling through the Port this summer, you may have noticed teens like Sasha and Sumaiya, both students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, clad in bright blue Community Art Center tees and equipped with recorders and cameras.

The Cambridge youth got out into the community this summer to shoot photos for “The Port: Uncovered,” a four-week, Humans of New York-style portrait series that found these teens approaching people to ask hard questions about everything from gun violence to gentrification. Each Wednesday, students visited a different park in the Port, and on Thursdays, they took pictures and conducted interviews in a plaza adjacent to the Marriott in Kendall Square.

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“…Nothing about Cambridge phases me; I will take really super late night walks, and I don’t even need my cell phone, because I grew in gang neighborhoods. So this doesn’t scare me.” — Mishka

“The opinions are very different,” Sasha notes on one such Thursday, looking around Kendall. “In the Port area, [people] have a lot to say, but they want to conceal everything. Here in Kendall Square, people have a lot to say, and they want to voice their opinions.”

This is the third year of the Port Stories Public Art Project, the broader initiative that The Port: Uncovered falls under. According to Laura Chadwell, director of community programs at the Community Art Center, the program has evolved over that time. At first, it was more about making art in Kendall and in the Port, where the CAC’s offices on Windsor Street are located. The idea was to encourage people to cross over those spaces. But when 22-year-old Kensley David was shot on Windsor Street in 2014, the students—many of whom knew him—wanted to more specifically address gun violence. They renamed the program “Change for Peace,” and it became a call to make art in public while meditating on nonviolence and community.

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“We should block a few areas off and seal it good so that no break-ins and shootings happen.” — Nevaia, age 8

This year, they refocused again. The emphasis is now on peace and. “Peace and the greater context of gentrification or of gun violence,” Chadwell explains. “Conversations about awareness—and about solutions.”

The three-year series is part of the Home Port Public Art Project, a Community Art Center initiative that aims to foster engagement between those who live in the Port and those who live and work in surrounding areas. The Port (formerly referred to as Area Four) is the neighborhood sandwiched between Central and Kendall Squares. Like those areas, it has a rich and vibrant history. But unlike those neighborhoods, it doesn’t have a rapidly growing medical and biotech sphere. Its residents, like those in the Newtowne Court and Washington Elms public housing developments—which are among the oldest housing developments in the country—are disconnected from the newfound wealth and affluence surrounding them.

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“I see Kendall being built into new buildings, while where I come from, which is Columbia Park—the Port—it’s not being touched.”
— Stephen Pierre

It’s a neighborhood made up of hardworking, blue-collar and low-income families—and Chadwell says it’s often forgotten about.

“When people only hear about it because there was a shooting,” she says, “there’s this reputation that the neighborhood gets that’s unjustified.”

So this year, the students, with recorders in hand, are asking neighbors about gun violence, gentrification, neighborhood awareness and peace. “I feel like it really informs people. Some people didn’t know about these topics, even in our little group,” says Sumaiya, an incoming sophomore at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. “I feel like if you get involved, you’re able to contribute and help out, especially if you live in the neighborhood.”

lisa bello timbers

“My take is that the country needs to take a more dramatic stand and remember that the constitution was written a long time ago, back when people of color and women were not free.” — Lisa Bello Timbers

The photoshoots are the kickoff to another year of Home Port Public Art Project programs. This fall, Community Art Center participants will design an interactive kiosk in the Port that’s meant for information sharing. There are plans to design a fashion brand for the neighborhood, and in the spring, they’re going to paint a mural. Next year, the hope is to have a roving van or trailer with artmaking supplies that can bring art into the Port and surrounding neighborhoods.

Not every interaction this summer has been positive, but the students do take something away from each conversation. Sasha Pedro, a guest artist and instructor with the summer program, says the students told her about a man who responded to their question about gun violence in the Port by saying, “I live in East Cambridge, so that doesn’t affect me.”

“It sucks to hear, but I think it gives them motivation to continue doing what they’re doing,” Pedro says. “They can see the results of not doing it.”

This story originally appeared in the September/October print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 240 locations throughout Cambridge and just beyond its borders or by subscription.