New City Heights mural connects the past, present and future of community

City Heights Mini Park Mural Rendering* This rendering is a sketch only and does not represent the actual park design. Image courtesy of The AjA Project

City Heights Square Mini Park is set to receive a piece of cultural history in the form of a large-scale mural-mosaic in spring 2012. The 18-by-50-foot installation was commissioned by Price Charities, a philanthropic organization with a long history of involvement in City Heights. The nonprofit AjA Project, which provides photography-based educational programming to refugee and at-risk youth, has been hired to do the project.

The mural will be a centerpiece in the park on 43rd Street between University and Polk avenues. Envisioned as a space for celebrating the community’s cultural heritage and diversity, the park will provide a forum where people of all backgrounds can connect through the power of visual storytelling.

This arts project aims to unify City Heights through a mosaic of tiles printed with photos from local students, families and residents. The mural will consist of more than 1,300 custom-printed ceramic tiles illustrating the visual history of City Heights and interpreting it as an on-going and ever-changing link between past, present and future.

One of the many families whose photographs will be featured on the mural will be the Moos. Four years ago, Ma Nyo and K Lu Moo relocated their family to San Diego from a Thai refugee camp. Upon arrival, they barely spoke English and hardly knew how to get around City Heights.

“We felt scared because none of us know how to speak English, and it’s hard for us to communicate with our caseworker,” April Moo, the eldest daughter in the family, said in recalling their experience as newcomers. “We don’t know where is hospital, store, all that stuff. And it’s hard to make friends too.”

Moving to a new country where a different language is spoken and nothing is familiar can be a very difficult transition. The Moos are Karen, an ethnic minority in Burma. They lived in a Karen refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border before coming here. There are about 140,000 Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand, and about 50,000 Karen refugees have resettled in America, Canada, Australia and some European countries. After arriving in City Heights, K Lu Moo said he did not want to leave their house because they did not know anybody. Taking English classes and finding a local Karen church helped the Moos feel much more comfortable, so they were then better able to integrate into the community.

“Yes, they do feel better when they go school because they can see other Karens,” April said, translating for her father. She said attending Crawford High School has made the transition easier for her as well “because I can belong to other clubs” and make new friends.

The Moos’ photograph for the mural project shows their home in the Thai refugee camp, taken circa 2006 right before the family began the process to come to the United States. Just as the Moos have become part of City Heights over the past four years, the mosaic will forever represent them and their culture in the community. April said her parents are proud of having their family photo be part of the mural.

The public exhibits created by The AjA Project are meant to bring students’ creative expressions to a broader audience and create a dialogue that fosters tolerance and understanding. The mural project is a perfect way to achieve these goals as the community will be more involved than ever before.

This will be one of eight large-scale installations that AjA has created over the past 10 years from student photographs, and it will be the first permanent one in the Project’s collection. AjA integrated the mural project into its after-school programming at Crawford High School, where students have actively participated in the creation and preparation of images for the mural. Through the use of participatory photography, AjA’s programs enable youth to become the artist, rather than the subject, and to create and control their own visual representations. AjA’s collection of student photos from the past 10 years will also become part of the mosaic.

In addition to addressing social issues, historic events, family values and cultural rituals through this mosaic, The AjA Project also hopes to reflect the opinions, hopes and dreams of the community members who created them. A new, and more authentic, face for the City Heights community will be formed through the interwoven images of past and present residents. Narratives in residents’ native languages and illustrations of traditional arts and crafts will also have their place on the mosaic.

Sarah Swasey is a communications and social media intern with The AjA Project.