New Kensington murals designed to bring color, hope to downtown
If it's been a while since you made your way to downtown New Kensington's Fifth Avenue, you may not recognize the street.
Longtime residents of the city will have grown accustomed to the abandoned state and downtrodden look of what was once a thriving business district. Though the vestiges of the city's prosperity remains in its structures, a sizable number of the buildings are suffering under the weight of disuse and time.
It's no wonder then, that an initiative to beautify downtown facades has such a stark impact on the feel of the downtown area.
Dilapidated building exteriors are being replaced, slowly but surely, by murals and other improvements.
Those improvements are part of an initiative to establish a zone of economic revitalization between the 700 and 1100 blocks of Fifth Avenue, which has been re-branded as the "Corridor of Innovation."
Part of that initiative is a partnership between Penn State New Kensington, the city and the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, which provides building owners with $1,000 in grants for use toward facade improvements along that section of the street.
So far, three murals are complete and more work is expected.
The effect on downtown is dramatic — once blighted structures now turned into stunning and positive works of art.
That's the point of the project, according to Christian Miller, the artist responsible for a mural on the side of the former Parkvale Savings Bank, who said that bringing art to the city will help bring in people and business.
His mural depicts a scale, weighted on one side by the Earth and pushed low on the other by a human hand. Miller said this represents the small action it takes to raise the state of the world.
"The whole idea behind the mural, itself, is the idea that the smallest act of kindness can have a very powerful response," Miller said. "A single act of kindness can tip the scale and make a positive impact on the world."
Miller, a New Kensington native now living in Pittsburgh, said the opportunity to help improve the city was too good to pass up.
Miller said New Kensington has a bad reputation, one that is sometimes earned, but also one that he hopes to help turn around — one piece of art at a time, if necessary.
"New Kensington has always been kind of empty, at least in my life.
"By creating these murals and helping to bring color back to that area, maybe that will make it feel warmer and inviting to other businesses to come down and set up shop and bring some life to the city."
Richard Dehnert, of Leechburg, was passing the mural as Miller worked. Dehnert said public art like the mural makes a city a better place to be.
"The art is a vast improvement," he said. "I live in Leechburg, and we've got several pieces there. But you can be driving through local towns all around here and you see some of the most beautiful artwork, and it just kind of jumps out at you and you don't expect it."
"We are really excited to see all of the different improvements going on along Fifth Avenue," said Sarah Snider, the volunteer coordinator of the facade improvement program.
Tim Engelhardt, the Pittsburgh-based artist behind the first mural, which is painted on the side of Cafa Buna, also is the mind behind a piece that now decorates the front of the shuttered Dattola Theater.
Engelhardt's newest work features a "steampunk" train pulling up to a futuristic train station, symbolic of the city moving forward and away from its past.
Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675, email@example.com, or on Twitter @matthew_medsger.