By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer | Image: This CommUNITY mural by Shane Pilster inspired the Murals on a Mission: New Kensington project.
The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
Partners Create Arts Destination in the Newly Reawakened City of New Kensington
The tale of New Kensington is not one that is unique in this region.
Located along the Allegheny River about 20 minutes northeast of Pittsburgh, New Kensington was once home to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company—later branded as Alcoa—and then the city saw a decline in residents and resources after the facility closed in the early 1970s. Like so many other industrial towns in southwestern Pennsylvania, the decline continued over the years until only a shadow remained of their once-vibrant business and cultural district.
But the town’s recent regeneration may just be one of the most unique stories around.
Where other revitalization initiatives typically include big development companies and cautious buy-in, if any, from the residents, the story of the new New Ken started with a one-man shop and has been fueled by a rally of overwhelming community support. Michael Malcanas, of Olde Towne Overhaul, saw potential where others might have seen blight. After purchasing several dilapidated properties in the downtown corridor, Malcanas chose to renovate them instead of tearing them down, preserving a piece of the city’s history. Beyond the renovations, his efforts have also been grounded in how he can help the people of New Kensington bounce back with as much vigor as the buildings he is remodeling.
This investment in relationship-building is paying dividends. Despite the complicating factor of opening a business during a pandemic, the downtown district has seen a dozen new businesses move in over the last year. The buzz is building among New Kensington residents and beyond.
This groundswell of grassroots energy has been building over the last few years and is now coalescing around a newly envisioned Corridor of Innovation located on Fifth Avenue in the downtown area. Combined with coordinated strategies at the district and county level through the Reimagining Our Westmoreland comprehensive plan and the Alle-Kiski District plan, New Kensington is poised for future growth.
The Voice of a Community and the Graffiti Art that Represents It
In 2020, Rivers of Steel began a partnership with the city of New Kensington, Olde Towne Overhaul, and other local business and community representatives to develop a public mural project designed to energize the community through high-impact public art. Murals on a Mission: New Kensington was developed with the knowledge of the larger growth strategies already in place and with the intent to catalyze further investments in creative placemaking throughout the Corridor.
“We believe in the power of public art,” says Shane Pilster, graffiti art curator and outreach coordinator for Rivers of Steel. “When you’re coming around a corner and see the side of a building with a beautiful mural on it, you just stop in your tracks to ponder it all. Some murals invoke the imagination, while others are more of a historical telling. Through the Murals on a Mission project we aimed to give people words of inspiration and hope for the future of the city.”
Backed by seed funding from the Creative Catalyst Program at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Rivers of Steel and the Murals on a Mission: New Kensington team worked with six local artists to install eight graffiti-style murals throughout the city’s downtown between May and November of 2021. The process leaned heavily on community involvement, and in the end over 3,000 residents engaged with the project through surveys, at events, and during the mural installation. The Murals on a Mission team collected over 130 words and phrases of inspiration about New Kensington.
Rivers of Steel staff and project team members also visited with local organizations, such as the New Kensington Art Center, to hear from local voices and learn more about other activities underway nearby.
“My favorite part of this project was interacting with community members and learning their individual stories and the history they could share about the area,” notes muralist Max Gonzales. “This piece did adapt over the time of its completion, with each day providing more insight into what New Kensington can mean to individuals.”
“Great Beginnings, Great Work, Progress, Together We Can, You Are Not Alone, Do What You Love, Just Step Forward, Down But Never Out, and Make Offer—these are all of the words and phrases used in my mural,” continues Gonzales. “The theme of the mural is cross-generational communication. With the first and most prominent phrase being Great Beginnings, this mural seeks to promote a sense of community and understanding. The imagery includes technology from the early 20th century until the present; all referencing forms of communication or broadcasting. The phrases all connect to one another and can be read in a variety of orders to always create a narrative of collectivism.”
In addition to works by Pilster and Gonzales, murals were completed by artists Ashley Hodder, Juliandra Jones with Dejouir Brown, Christian Miller, and Jewels Antonio. Every artist selected their word or phrases from the list acquired from the community and residents. Each concept had few limitations, says Pilster, aside from approval from the building owner. “Our goal was to allow the artists to showcase their styles and personalities through their work, and that really shined through.”
“All of the artists were incredible to work with, very professional, and they all went above and beyond with what they painted,” notes Pilster. “We only requested a certain size of mural per our budget, but each artist went beyond that to showcase their skills and to convey the idea of solidarity through art. They all deserve an extra shout out for the work, time, and effort they put into to creating these murals with love for the art form and the community.”
A Sense of Place
Like a beacon for the arts, the work in New Kensington also attracted regional partnerships like the Hemispheric Conversations: Urban Art Project (HCUAP, pronounced, “hiccup”). HCUAP is an international initiative, based out of the University of Pittsburgh, that seeks to create platforms for conversation and education about urban art production (graffiti, street art, and muralism, among other genres) and to explore aesthetic and historical connections between post-industrial cities.
During the 2021 production period for Murals on a Mission: New Kensington, HCUAP hosted a residency for Latin American artists to visit Pittsburgh and participate in various public art projects. This year, Mexican artist Eva Bracamontes, Argentinian artist Sasha Primo, New Kensington artist Anton Bachman, Spanish artist Tomas Garcia, and Pittsburgh-area artists Max Gonzales and Shane Pilster worked collaboratively to contribute an additional mural for the city located at Ninth Avenue and Barnes Street.
Muralist Dejouir Brown reflected on why this work held value for the community. “True Art is self-expression and holds unlimited possibilities in the impact it can have on another onlooker. It’s great to have murals that incorporate people of color—done by people of color—to show others growing up that it’s ok being who you are and to love yourself, and to show you anything is possible.”
Lessons Learned to Recreate Success
As the mural project began wrapping up, after almost two years of invested time, planning, collaboration, and implementation, Pilster and the Rivers of Steel staff worked to turn their experiences with Murals on a Mission: New Kensington into a community toolkit for other industrial towns on the cusp of a similar regeneration.
“The toolkit outlines our path for the entire project from getting the grant, the overall objectives, collaborating with businesses, working with artists, and connecting with the community,” says Pilster. “Some of the key features include an in-depth look into the city we are working with, our process and work within the city prior to the project beginning, connections that were critical with businesses and artists, and ideas on community engagement that we found to be successful.”
Pilster also emphasized the importance of having a partner like Mike Malcanas. “Olde Towne Overhaul went above and beyond to make the mural dream in New Kensington a reality. They were able to make many of the building owner introductions, assisted with setting up a live painting event, and included us in other events around town. Without having an instrumental connection to businesses in the area, I believe it would have taken longer to make those connections organically, but I also believe that it starts with just one solid connection to make a project like this start to flourish.”
“This is something that could be utilized in cities across the state on a either a smaller scale with a minimal team or on a much larger scale with multiple organizations involved. Large-scale public art is a sign of revitalization, creativity, and a city moving in a positive direction. The plethora of positive feedback that we received from residents passing us by while painting the murals was worth everything and makes me believe that this would work in many cities across the country.”
About the Murals on a Mission: New Kensington Program
Murals on a Mission: New Kensington is a project designed to energize the community of New Kensington, Pennsylvania through highimpact public art. The partnership harnesses the power of large-scale, text-based murals to enhance the visibility of the city, create a sense of place—and bring color, vibrancy, and new character to the urban environment. View the Community Toolkit here.
Murals on a Mission: New Kensington was made possible by generous support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Bloomberg Philanthropies, who provided the crucial seed funding necessary to launch this pilot. In the months since its inception, the project has continued to grow, complimenting other public art in the city, creating renewed energy downtown, and attracting new projects throughout the Corridor of Innovation.
Rivers of Steel remains a committed partner in the effort to reimagine the future of New Kensington. The organization will continue to work with the project team to bring new, creative programs to the city as an extension of its mission to serve the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.
If you’d like to know more about community projects in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, check out this recent collaboration between Center of Life, Arts Excursions Unlimited, and Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture.