Volunteers bundled against the cold used long-handled brushes early Monday to apply salmon-colored paint that set the background for a mural depicting an African plain on a wall of Katressa's Unisex Salon on Winbourne Avenue.
They were among about 4,000 people taking part in the fifth annual MLK Fest, a series of service projects established by The Walls Project in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on days surrounding the federal holiday marking his birth. The festival began Friday and runs through Tuesday. Projects ranged from cleaning up trash to freshening the paint on buildings to helping artists create The Walls Project's colorful murals to assisting with the planting of an "urban farm" at BREC's Howell Community Park.
“We just want to do what we can as a community to kind of brighten the neighborhood, to see what we can do to grow the economy through this kind of work and, if anything, show them they’re worth investing in," said Helena Williams, director of operations for The Walls Project and program coordinator for MLK Fest. "We want the community to rise all together.”
MLK Fest service projects take place in different areas of the city each year. Last year, it was Scenic Highway; next year volunteers are expected along Plank Road.
Organizers selected Winbourne Avenue this year because it is still recovering from the August 2016 floods, Williams said. Abandoned properties and blight contribute to problems with crime and a lack of economic development.
“It’s been really systematically disinvested in, so there’s a lot of work to be done," Williams said.
Artist Bryson Boutte worked on the salon's mural.
"I'm just really excited to add something to the community, to add something that will bring some more life to this street that, for the most part, the city has kind of turned their head to," he said, standing on a ladder as he painted blue silhouettes of three women doing one another's hair.
Down the street, sisters Lauren and Lena Foster savored cups of hot chocolate outside a business where they had just finished helping apply a new coat of crisp white paint. They were volunteering alongside more than 20 fellow members of the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition mentoring organization.
The sisters, who both attend Baton Rouge Magnet High School, said it was inspiring to see people stepping up to tackle less-than-glamorous tasks.
"It's things like that that can bring us together as a community," said Lauren Foster, 16.
Lena Foster, 18, added: "One day, people are going to look at this and go, 'OK, there are actually people out here that really care and that want to make a difference in their community.'"
Nearby, a partially complete black-and-blue mural of King's face loomed on the brick wall of BJ's Tire Shop as Jonathan Blake supervised 17 members of 100 Black Men's Project Excel, a mentorship program targeting 11- to 18-year-old boys.
"Baton Rouge has gone through a lot in the last couple of years ... and I think it's important for the community to come together as one for a common purpose to clean up our neighborhoods, to show pride in our neighborhoods," said Blake, the project's co-chair.
A man strolling through the neighborhood called out "looks good!" as Brianna Wright, a nursing student who lives in Baton Rouge, worked on her addition to a freestyle piece of art. She painted a message in light blue script: "learn your history to know who you are."
"As black people in this world and this society, we need to learn our history, learn where we come from — our ancestors and what all they've accomplished, what all they gave to society, everything that we've ... created," Wright said. "I feel like that can empower the youth to know and to do anything that they put their mind to."
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