It’s hard to miss the works of art showcased on the exterior brick walls of Mulgrave Park, the public-housing community in Halifax’s North End.
Chances are that you also haven’t heard much about the community member who kick-started the annual mural festival that has reignited a sense of community and pride among Mulgrave Park’s residents and brought outsiders into the neighbourhood for the first time.
“I’m just trying to give back to my community in ways that I think will help,” said Jeremy Williams. Now 26 years old, he grew up amongst the walls that now bear stories that speak to the past, present, and future of the people who call Mulgrave Park home.
To date, Mulgrave Park’s mural project has brought some 15 artists from across the country. The vision for the project continues to widen in scope with pending contracts for international artists, NSCAD students, and a new mural to go up within the month.
When former pro-basketball player Tyler Richards (a Halifax Rainmen alum) was murdered in 2016 his childhood community, Mulgrave Park collectively grieved the loss. Williams is amongst those affected by Richard’s death, as he was a close friend and mentor and a symbol of hope and aspiration to many.
Richards was close friends with Williams’s older brother, meaning Williams looked up to the professional basketball player from a young age and saw him as proof of a hopeful future. It was Richards who inspired Williams to pursue becoming a university athlete: a goal that kept him focused on what was most important to him.
“A lot of kids go to college because of guys like Tyler… seeing guys make it out,” Williams says. “I wanted to give kids a chance [to understand] you don’t have to do the whole gang, street thing, sell drugs. You can become an athlete or a musician.”
But with the death of Richards, Williams suddenly found himself stuck between dreams of professional football and to practice law and the emotional trauma of a string of murders affecting his community.
Feeling unsteady on a once solid foundation, Williams wanted to do something for Richard’s family when he envisioned a mural of Richards in a public place where people could remember him every day. Thus began a multi-year, national project that has produced a free, interactive, accessible art gallery in a low-income, and therefore often overlooked, neighbourhood.
One day, as Williams walked Mulgrave’s streets he sat on a staircase, a popular hang-out for Mulgrave kids, “looking at Tyler’s mural from a distance and saw BMWs, Bentleys,” the cars of upper-class citizens coming to see Tyler’s mural.
In that moment Williams realized the mural was bridging a gap of demographics. “I [wished] they could see the whole community because then they may change something,” he says. “I contacted the artists who did Tyler’s mural and said ‘let’s do a mural festival’.”
Jump ahead to present day. When you walk through Mulgrave Park, “you don’t realize you’re in public housing,” says Williams. “A lot of people of [an upper/middle class, white] demographic probably stereotype us as people you don’t feel comfortable being with. Now you see that [members of both communities] are the same and really nice people…It’s breaking down stratification. That’s the whole point.”
Mulgrave Park is currently undergoing reconstruction thanks to a $5-million government grant but Williams worries about gentrification. He recounts that his former elementary school used to be located across from a church and playground. Now both church and playground have been flattened and rebuilt into condominiums. Mulgrave Park’s mural project aims to prove that a public housing community with a rich history of resiliency has just as much to offer, if not more, than a new high-rise.
“With the deterioration of the neighbourhood’s exterior structures over the past decade, people lost that sense [of community pride],” he adds. “Now people actually like to walk the community.”
If you turn left off Barrington Street onto Duffus Street you’ll see a mural of a man holding a baby; kissing it on the cheek. At the mention of this mural of Shakur O’Shay Trevez Jefferies, Williams becomes animated. “That wasn’t [orchestrated by] me,” he says. “That’s what’s cool about it. Shakur was a great athlete and [when] something tragic happened to him, other young leaders in the community asked me how I did it [for Tyler]. They decided to dedicate a mural to him. They pulled it off all on their own.”