Beneath the shadow of South Mountain, teeming with the greenery of early spring, the songs of a mariachi band echoed alongside the smell of fresh fry bread, a gallery of vivid skateboard designs — from swirling rainbows to the Arizona state flag — hanging from tree trunks and the joyful chatter of children sharing their excitement over coloring pages and crafts.
Dozens of youth artists and community organizers met Saturday to begin the renewal of Circle K Park through a celebration of culture, art and the community’s autonomy over its future.
The fifth annual Forever Rising Young Artists Exhibition hosted by the Sagrado, an art gallery in south Phoenix that seeks to empower the community through art and design, expanded this year into a festival, an effort to help make the park a community space. The exhibition nurtures entrepreneurship for young artists and their vision for the world they want to live in.
This year, District 8 Councilmember Carlos Garcia partnered with the Sagrado to listen to what the community wanted to see from Circle K Park, which is due for more funding and renovations.
Organizers say arts and culture help create a bond between the community and reframe negative stereotypes.
“When people think of south Phoenix, they don’t always think of big parks by a natural reserve,” said Lauren Kennedy, Sagrado communications and development director. “We want to connect them to that. We know the power of arts and culture can get people outside and bring people together.”
An unused resource
Neighbors of the park, located on South Mountain Road, put the spotlight on the park after they noticed a lack of investment the park received.
Chase Wright, who lives nearby, said he tried to take his young girls to the park a few times when they were new to the neighborhood, but left with “a sour taste in (their) mouths.” Wright said the park was littered with trash, people were using drugs in the open, and the park’s amenities, like a racquetball court, were frequently locked and unusable.
“We would love to see some improvements here and this is a great start to getting the community involved,” Wright said. “We can make it a special place for the community and entice people to come here.”
It was not something he wanted to expose his children to, but he thought the park was beautiful with a lot to offer and wanted to change its negative image. He soon found out the neighbors agreed and partnered with longtime residents to call on the city to help.
Residents petitioned the city for more than a year to give more attention to the park until Garcia stepped in to listen to feedback and make the large park a gathering space again.
“Events like this are important to activating the park, and we’re excited to be here and listen,” Garcia said. “Part of today is to get started on making connections. This is like foreshadowing of what’s to come.”
A committee for the park’s renovation is expected to form by the end of the month, with plans ready for approval by the end of the year.
‘Activating’ community spaces
One of the components of the festival was the “activation” of the park. In other words, encouraging the community to use the space, feel connected to the community and get invested in its future.
Community organizers used arts and crafts to engage young children and encourage them to talk about what they want their neighborhoods to look like. Many drew ponds, animals, houses and play equipment, saying they want more outdoor activities and more natural features like trees.
At the table for AZ Land, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging middle school students to take control of their vision for green spaces in south Phoenix through history and design, children made butterflies from coffee filters and wrote what they wanted for their future on tags attached to the butterflies, which then got pinned on a clothesline, creating a rainbow of paper wings and dreams.
“(Children) can’t always express in paragraphs what they want, but they can use art to articulate that and draw their lived experiences,” said Regional Carrillo, founder of AZ Land.
It can be challenging to engage with young children because concepts like development can be abstract, but AZ Land organizers find art is a conduit for self-expression that makes these discussions easier for children. Carrillo said he and his colleagues want to encourage young people to think outside the box and not be inhibited by traditional routes of civic participation, which are bound by rules and protocol, or old ways of thinking.
“It’s based on a mindset of abundance,” Carrillo said. “People see south Phoenix, and they see scarcity. This is a reminder that innovation comes from the struggles we’ve been through and where we come from in vulnerable communities like south Phoenix.”
But the event wasn’t just about the future. Organizers wanted the community to reconnect with a park that neighbors say has been neglected, especially as the rise in the cost of living threatens to force out longtime residents.
“As south Phoenix is becoming less accessible, more uninhabitable for working-class people, being here and creating a community is hard to do,” said Elida Acosta, a resident who was working at the Cultural Coalition booth with her partner and artist Edgar Fernandez. “It’s important for south Phoenix to stay connected to how it was developed and the people that helped build it up.”
For the young entrepreneurs of Soulbond, a small business that sells screenprinted clothing, the festival was a chance not only to get their brand out there but to meet the community and work toward their dream of bringing on other south Phoenix artists to help them share each other’s art with the world.
“We just want to push a message,” said Elijah Vidales, one of the owners. “That’s where the name comes from. Soulbond is connecting with people over things that matter. Because when you make that connection, it stays with you forever. It doesn’t go away.”
The Soulbond booth had a mini skate park that attendees could practice on. City officials and organizers said a skateboarders park, something many young people want access to, is a big topic of discussion in deciding what’s next for the park.
Garcia said it’s important to be flexible and remember that trends and neighborhoods are always evolving. Skate parks may not have been on the table 20 years ago, but they are now, and listening to those changes will allow the project to be successful, he said.
The festival is only the beginning, organizers said.
“I want south Phoenix to have that connection to our ancestors,” Acosta said. “It’s community, it’s art, it’s recovering from generational trauma through arts and culture. We want to stay here in community. We don’t want to move somewhere else.”
Megan Taros covers south Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Have a tip? Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @megataros. Her coverage is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.
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