Lexington Avenue doesn’t have a reputation for being the best neighborhood in Jersey City. At all. Stories of shootings, stabbings and of a boy hit by a car and dragged for miles were whispered by the wall as I painted it, and by the boys on the street. It felt like a movie to hear that the wall had recently been painted white so police driving by could see troublesome youth hanging out on the block when they got up to no good. Whether that was true or not, there was a hint of sadness in the smiles on the street that told of unpredictable futures, of racial profiling, of sorrow for the lost and an unfortunate place in the system that seemed impossible for them to escape.
I was glad Ernie was there. He stands tall with a booming voice that commands. He’ll tell you stories about his life that fill you with energy and enthusiasm. And he knows these streets a lot better than I could possibly. To have a legend of a hip hop photographer hanging out with you while you paint is just a bonus and he kept the boys crowded around us, yet humbled and at bay.
It wasn’t really about the piece this time. Painting the wall almost felt like something that was happening in the background while this narrative of Lexington Avenue, the people who lived on it, the stories they had to tell and the love they had to give, unraveled over 2 days. On a trip where I was looking for signs from the universe about who I am and who I’ve become, I was reminded that in dark corners there is still humanity, good intentions, and above all, love.
“L for Love, Loyalty, Laughter, you know what I mean?” Manzini said.
There were so many amazing characters on the street. Manzini, who took the details of my website on the first day and came back with a hat and a t shirt with my signature and artwork on them on the 2nd that made me cry. The boy who couldn’t afford a skateboard so made his own and taught his sausage dog Hercules to ride it (really. He showed me). The boy with the polite demeanor walking his baby with a blunt in his hand. The boy who talked about hope. About how these were good kids with bad circumstances who just needed to be shown that they can, and they are worth and they should. They were polite, not always forthcoming, but not in any way upset about this stranger from Dubai coming to paint on their street. “That’s where the chicken is yo”, they said. “Chicken?”. “Money”.
The women were proud. Proud and proud. To see a woman, of colour, up on a ladder with a spray can painting a wall. Though I often shy away from being identified creatively by my birthrights, I do have to acknowledge that although it doesn’t play a part in the art I make, it will always inevitably play a part in the way I’m seen. And in this case that was a good thing. They stopped and watched. Said they loved the colours. I let one of the girls do some fills on the wall. Others just wanted to know if this is really what I do for a living? People wanted to know that there was a way. To be more than just where you find yourself. That you didn’t have to look at a picture and instantly see a bird or a face but that you could let your imagination wander and see whatever you wanted to see.
I hope I never forget any of them but the one I really won’t forget was a little old lady with a walking stick who walked by and stopped to look at the wall repeatedly over two days. She said the wall was beautiful and I should be proud and that she was proud of me. That I’d done good. Real good. I adored her energy. Her orangy glowing fro. I asked if I could take a photo with her, to which she replied “Of course honey. But you’re gonna have to tell me where to look … because I’m legally blind!”. My heart absolutely glowed with delight.
There were a lot of laughs. A lot of stories shared and hearts touched. A lot of exchanges of humanity. People showing each other who they really are. I’ve struggled with my own cultural identity my whole life. On this street when the boys asked me where I was from I said “nowhere really”. And that was okay. They didn’t demand I be defined. We were all in some way misunderstood and walking wounded. Ernie and I had had breakfast and talked about our previous adventures in love that left us with healing hearts. And on Lexington Avenue our hearts were humbled, filled with humanity, with love, and with hope.
“By painting the wall, you’re giving young people, youth, inspiration. They keep seeing the same thing everyday, a wall that’s damaged. If they see a wall that’s […], it gives them hope. So what you’re doing is inspiring them to be better individuals. So, I mean, keep it up!”
The boy with the glasses hit the nail on the head.
Lexington Avenue is a rough neighbourhood. Probably one of the roughest in Jersey City I hear. As I finished the wall, the boys on the street asked me to write a dedication to boys who had died there. I wrote 11 names in crappy text that nobody seemed to mind. And they crowded round and took photos like we had just made each person matter again.
Lexington Avenue is a rough neighbourhood. But:
“We all family. This is a community. There’s nothing but love around here. […] We embrace all newcomers. […] Kids respectful. Some of them kinda bad but they’re respectful. We were all kids once. […] So welcome!” – Manzini