Think about the light that illuminates your community and how it makes you feel. When you see red and blue flashing lights, do you feel calm or anxiety? Do the light poles in your neighborhood bear blue flashing surveillance cameras? Have you noticed these cameras as you drive through other communities? Is a bright flood light installed at the end of your block? Do you have LED street lights? Are the lights in your community shattered or broken? Is your community devoid of light?
April Danielle Lewis created the Safe and Sound public art project with residents from the Greater Mondawmin neighborhood to answer these questions and examine the role of light in safety and community. The project, a series of workshops culminating in a parade and performance showcase, is a part of Neighborhood Lights 2017, which pairs artists and creative projects with neighborhoods beyond the Inner Harbor during the ongoing downtown-centered festival Light City. Lewis, a resident artist with performance art curatorial project LabBodies (which also created a light and performance installation located at the Inner Harbor for Light City), facilitated three workshops at FlashPoint, a new community hub outside Mondawmin Mall, where residents hunkered down with tubs of art supplies and surveys on the implications of light or the absence of light within their neighborhoods. Lewis also guided local students in creating light sculptures at ConneXions Academy, Liberty Elementary, and Creative City Public Charter School.
I attended the last of the three workshops at FlashPoint, where young and old members of the Greater Mondawmin community were immersed in the process of creating their own light sculptures or chatting with other participants. Most worked diligently, painting the tops of their umbrellas or gluing light cords to the wireframe. Lewis between two umbrellas, glue gun in one hand, sharpie and light cord in the other.
"I think community means safety," Lewis said as she applied glue to the spine of one of the umbrellas. "But how does being reminded everyday that you are being watched, how does that affect you?"
Baltimore has a long history of surveilling its citizens. Under the direction of former Mayor Martin O'Malley in the mid-2000s, the BPD began installation of CitiWatch crime cameras throughout the city. The number of cameras in the city has nearly tripled since then, but crime rates have showed little decline. Last year, it was revealed the BPD had briefly used an aerial surveillance plane in order to stop crime—and that it mostly caught car accidents and illegal dumping. Despite deep investments in surveillance and other technology and expanded police presence, surveilled communities are less safe than other regions throughout the city.
Each Safe and Sound survey posed three simple prompts: Describe the lights you notice in your neighborhood. How do the lights you described make you feel? What makes you feel safe?
These inquiries stem from observations Lewis made while living in different neighborhoods throughout the city.
"I have lived all throughout Baltimore. Greektown. West Hills. West Baltimore. At one point I lived in an area that had a bad heroin problem. You always saw police, ambulances. Anytime I was woken up by the lights, I would document the shadows they made on the wall. And it made me curious about youth and the lights. How does that affect your worldview? Or do you just become desensitized? I wanted to find out how they feel."
Responses varied widely. Many commented on the new LED street lights, saying they felt safer with them in their neighborhoods, while others complained that the light seemed "sterile, lacked warmth" or "made them feel disoriented from the brightness."
In response to "what makes you feel safe?" most referenced family, community, and connectedness.
"And two teens mentioned money and a fully charged cellphone," Lewis added.
Some responses were sobering and revelatory. One participant offered, "Porch lights from windows in homes make me feel like I am part of a community." Another wrote, "Blue lights make me feel watched. Flashing lights from ambulances make me feel worried." Others wrote poetic descriptions of all the light they encountered during their daily routines: "Blinking blue lights, helicopter spotlights, traffic lights, headlights, brake lights, TV lights in houses, porch lights, open sign lights, sunlight, moonlight."
The survey also asked participants to draw a picture of something that makes them feel safe. Those drawings were then incorporated into their light sculptures, white umbrellas decorated with acrylic and light cord. Some sculptures bear random splatters of paint and a nonlinear light cord arrangement; others showcased portraits of pets, mandalas, flowers, and suns highlighted by carefully positioned light cords. Lewis was inspired by the parades of Ashanti Ghanaian royalty and the second line culture of New Orleans to use umbrellas as foundations for the light sculptures.
On April 7, 120 participants carrying their umbrellas and a hundred more allies will illuminate the night as they march from ConneXions Academy through Mondawmin in the Safety in Numbers Parade. At Hanlon Park, the procession will meet a display of luminous, teardrop-shaped sculptures created by Lewis and end with performances hosted by the local monthly gathering Sunsets, featuring Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate Derrick Ebert, singer Ebony Evans, the Douglas High School Band, and Aisha Pew and Cole of Dovecote Cafe.
The significance of each umbrella light sculpture, and the project as a whole, resides in the unique and intimate expression of safety and autonomy expressed by each participant—reminding them that they are a part of, not separate from, Baltimore's creative communities.
"I love to create opportunities where community can come together in solidarity," Lewis says. "I want to fill the street with umbrellas and light, to create a sea of light for celebration of safety."