The Fruit Belt story begins in the JOSANA Neighborhood of Rochester, N.Y., located west of Sahlen’s Stadium and north of Interstate 490. Ames Street and Campbell Street are its main thoroughfares. The name stands for the Jay Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association. The area known today as JOSANA was once part of Dutchtown – a misrepresentation of the original “Deutschtown” – for its concentration of German immigrants. Once settled, the community planted numerous fruit trees in the area and was given the nickname “Fruit and Nut Neighborhood”. The area street names honor this agricultural legacy of the immigrants with names like Orchard, Lime, Orange, Walnut, and Grape.

The street names have remained the same but JOSANA is a different place now. The area is recognized for the amount of vacant homes, empty lots, population decline, drugs, crime, and pervasive poverty and has now warranted a new nickname “Ghost Town” a neighborhood broken by decades of decline and abandonment.

Indeed, within Rochester’s infamous “crescent” of distressed neighborhoods lining downtown to the north and west, “Ghost Town” has earned itself a reputation as among the worst neighborhoods. According to NiegborhoodScout.com’s 2014 data, the area between Jay Street and 490 was deemed to be the seventh most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S.

According to data adopted by the city’s 2011 JOSANA Master Plan, prepared by Interface Studio, the neighborhood is characterized by its unique demographics: one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic. More than one third of JOSANA’s population (36%) is below the age of 18. 53% of the homes in JOSANA are owned by absentee landlords and 29% of the children under six tested in the very high range for lead poisoning. The research shows that this neighborhood has an income lower than 77.8% of U.S. neighborhoods. With 66.7% of the children here below the federal poverty line, this neighborhood has a higher rate of childhood poverty than 97.0% of U.S. neighborhoods. 40% of JOSANA’s households that earn less than $15,000 per year.

Photo credit: Rochester Subway, Democrat and Chronicle, Davy V. Blogspot

As complex as the challenges are, however, the potential was visible. In the spring of 2015 artist Shawn Dunwoody and area youth artist returned daily to create a community canvas building enthusiasm and cohesion through art: The Fruit Belt Project. The Fruit Belt Project is a series of large-scale community driven public murals, supporting JOSANA’s Neighborhood Master Plan strategy of beautification, through socially engaged art to transform the area that has been overtaken by blight and disinvestment.

The Fruit Belt Project approached the JOSANA neighborhood with a method for creating public art that generates social change and creative place making, to achieve tangible outcomes for the residents and businesses in the area.

Project Goals

  • To give the neighborhood a unified identity
  • To inspire hope and optimism throughout the community
  • To create jobs for local residents
  • To bring beauty to historic neighborhood
  • To generate positive attention for the neighborhood often highlighted for negative reasons
  • To improve local business viability and bring more customers to the area
  • To inspire long term investment and additional resources for the community

To develop this new creative strategy for community the Farash Foundation and community collaborators DUNWOODĒ Consulting and Greentopia of Rochester provided place-making, financial resources. Greentopia was successful in securing additional support from the Arts & Cultural Council of Rochester, the Gilbert Spirit Fund, and the City of Rochester. With inspiration from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program Philly Painting initiative and finances in-tow Shawn set out to enlist community design input throughout the fall and winter months.

Dunwoody began taking pictures of buildings and streets throughout the neighborhood and from these images formed a palette with 25 options of “fruit” colors to connect to the neighborhood’s history. The fruit named streets were the bases for the color palette of the project, symbolically weaving the array of colors together of past and present into a unified neighborhood experience and new identity: The Fruit Belt. Several sites were considered and ultimately, site selection and design was chosen based on resident and business owner’s input. The buildings to be painted were: Stop One Meat Market located at 352 Jay Street and College Club Beverages at 63 Grape Street.

Photo credit: Google Maps

The work would start in mid May 2015. In order to build momentum about the project there needed to be a community call to help build it. Dunwoody and Stacey Rowe Communications organized and recruited support for the project’s one-day kick-off community event, The Big Paint-Out, in collaboration with Sherwin Williams’ National Paint Week. The painting, gardening, greeting, logistics and cleanup skills of more than 250 volunteers were activated to construct the foundation of the movement. Organizing the Fruit Belt’s Big Paint-Out played a compelling role in reintroducing the JOSANA neighborhood to greater Rochester community about it’s history, new identity, and establishing personal investment.

Photo credit: Stephen Reardon

Painting would continue after the paint-out, but beyond the ambitious design goals of the Fruit Belt Project was Dunwoody’s commitment to hire neighborhood youth to help execute the murals. In many ways youth employment was the most important aspect of the project understanding that no amount of paint, stewardship, or brand identity could compete with almost half of JOSANA’s households living below the poverty line. Shawn hired a core group of five area high school students. This core group called themselves the “Fruit Belt Titians” and they would become the “brand” of the project as they went up and down lifts for six months, prepping, priming, painting and repainting and repainting the neighborhood. The crew members were trained and certified in erecting scaffold, operating lift machines, tools, and basic wall repair. Having neighborhood youth engaged in the project meant that community members; friends, children, and parents saw young people improving where they live.

Photo credit: Democrat and Chronicle

The Fruit Belt artist presence and the participatory design process led to a strong sense of community ownership and vocalization from neighbors. Many of the wise words from residents began to resonate with the team and ended up creating an almost design-as-you-go process. Dunwoody decided to incorporate typographical mural quotes that derived from the area Fruit Belt supporters. Such words to live by that are prominently visible on the wall include the slogans “shine”, “Be Happy & Dream”, and “Say I will & I Can.”

Many neighborhood residents expressed there need and interest in a community garden. Drawing from to energy of the people and vision of the JOSANA Master Plan The Fruit Belt Titans pushed to add another level to the movement: a community garden. As Rochester’s historic Fruit and Nut neighborhood the team decided to expand the project model into urban farming with an all fruit based garden to promote healthy lifestyles. The Fruit Belt Garden builds on cultivating a culture of low maintenance gardening and building skills and interest among neighbors to create a connection to healthy eating. When complete the elderly and accessible beds will be blooming with fresh fruits and fruit trees in honor of JOSANA’s honor this legacy, still referencing orchards of grape vines and orange, walnuts and lime trees.

Another strength Dunwoody and the team was able to bring to the project was the strong relationship with local entrepreneurship, product production, and marketing resources. During the project, he secured sponsorship by the neighborhood based soda manufacturer, College Club Beverages, to craft a seltzer flavor for the Fruit Belt movement. Together they produced a limited edition Fruit Belt Seltzer: A beverage made for building, to serve as a catalyst for additional positive neighborhood awareness and commercial potential.

Photo credit: Democrat and Chronicle

Woven throughout the fabric of JOSANA’s neighborhood of vacant parcels, former industrial areas, and commercial corridors are children dense residential streets.

The configuration and length of some of these neighborhood streets, invite cars, buses, and large construction vehicles to travel at high speeds, thus endangering pedestrians and cyclists. This has been a major concern with area residents as an overlooked threat to the community. The Fruit Belt team understood that if they can shape a new communal identity they could work together to foster a safer public realm as well. Inspired by their fruit based pallet the team designed a traffic-calming, glow in the dark creative cross walk. The hope is the artwork, now part of the Fruit Belt movement, will make drivers focus and navigate in both day and night, the crossing with caution, creating a safe passage way.

Creative Crosswalk. Traffic box quote designs from local school #17 fifth graders.

There is still more to do and can be done in the JOSANA/Fruit Belt Project. It may be too early to evaluate the full impact of the project; many of its short-term goals were either met or well on their way. The short-term outcomes don’t represent just the project, a product, or plan, but together; the early impact has been significant.

Visually, the murals brought coherence and colorful design to the much-blighted section of the JOSANA neighborhood. The Fruit Belt’s activity, as well as the media attention the project generated, did much towards the goal of improving the public image of the JOSANA community. There have been over twenty news articles and local broadcasts about the project, in addition to a new documentary film by Blue Sky Project: Confronting the Wall. All have generated positive attention for the neighborhood often highlighted for negativity. The Fruit Belt Project exceeded its goal for youth employment with five full-time crew-members and ten additional part-time youth workers. The young artist had the opportunity to paint alongside internationally acclaimed street artists: Maxx242, Jeff Soto, Vexta, and Daze as part of Rochester’s annual Wall Therapy mural festival. In order to strengthen the program Dunwoody and his core Fruit Belt Titians visited the Philly Painting project in Philadelphia to gain greater insight to its progress and promise. There, local businesses have recorded increased visits and sales, as direct result of the exterior makeover. The Fruit Belt Project model proved to be a relatively inexpensive and efficient way to catalyze change, build social capital, and impart hope within an underserved community.

Photo credit: Belinda Leon Dunwoody

The JOSANA community and the Fruit Belt Project intend on implementing other activities building upon existing programs and initiatives focused on the JOSANA Neighborhood Master Plan. The Fruit Belt Movement forges ahead understanding that its practices cannot be defined as “a simple” neighborhood mural.

Instead, it is an evolving social practice, a community design approach working to create integrated artistic change agents that strive to make more than an aesthetic difference in the Fruit Belt/JOSANA neighborhood. People are growing as strong, bright, and colorful as the tallest orchard tree.

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