Art and the Inner City
by Sean Posey

Decades of disinvestment have taken a massive toll on many American inner cities. In particular, the inner cities of the Rust Belt—Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Camden, Gary, etc.—are among the most dangerous and depressed in the nation. However, beyond the ruins that now seem to symbolize much of the urban core in Rust Belt cities is the ever-burning flame of hope that expresses itself in the art of the inner city.

In the gritty Detroit Neighborhood of Old Redford sits Artist Village Detroit. An outgrowth of the Motor City Blight Busters—a non-profit group that demolishes houses with volunteer labor—Artist Village promotes art as an outlet for children in Detroit. Sculptures, paintings, and carvings decorate the inside and outside of the Artist Village storefront; murals and various other works dot the surrounding neighborhood.

Artist Village Mural in the Old Reford neighborhood in Detroit.


Their summer program immerses students in the educational world of art and gets them involved with programs like Detroit Neighborhood Arts Corps, which seeks to identify young people who have the potential to pursue art as a career.

Public art combining the input of working artists and youth from the community is also highly visible on the streets of Braddock Pennsylvania, an embattled borough of Pittsburgh.


Street painting of a young girl done by the artist Swoon in Braddock.


In 2008, A Brooklyn street artist known as Swoon and a local collective called Transformazium helped lead youth in a program called Points of Interest. In collaboration with her subjects, Swoon painted the representations of several young residents of Braddock under an overpass, which had served as an informal memorial for two young murder victims. Other artists from the collective designed several public art works throughout Braddock.

Swoon spoke of the origins of her part of the project: “After some thought I decided that sometimes nothing is more wonderful than that moment when the residents of a place see themselves written large on it’s walls, and so, I started very simply, by creating a painting of (a local youth) Ashley.”

Recent revitalization efforts in Youngstown, Ohio have also incorporated public art. The Idora Neighborhood, located in a largely African American section of the city, saw the installation of a community mural in 2010, which local children were invited to help paint. Another mural is in the works this year just down the street from Idora.


Painting a section of a mural in the Idora neighborhood in Youngstown.


The city of Cleveland has also gotten in on the act. Between 2005 and 2010, a local charitable organization known as the Human Fund donated almost $800,000 dollars to art programs in the school district. The Human Fund helps make possible the survival of school art programs for disadvantage children. It also helps assure children will have after school art activities that not only benefit their development, but also keep them off the street as well.

Using art therapy in particular shows great promise for inner city children.

In her book Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts Therapies with At-Risk Youth Vanessa Camilleri attests to the importance of creative expression and outlets for children in economically hard-hit urban areas. Despite the many challenges present in these environments, “Creative arts therapies can address and positively impact on children no matter what their location or their specific situation.”

Using case studies and statistical analysis, Camilleri shows the power of art therapy when used in schools in the inner city. If this type of approach can show successes in Chicago and Washington D.C. it should certainly be looked at in places like Cleveland and Detroit.

One of the most promising programs in the nation targeting urban children is the Inner City Arts program in Los Angeles. Inner City Arts has a spacious campus where children can study in a realistic studio environment. Traditional studio arts are offered as well as a drama program where students can immerse themselves in roles at the spacious Rosenthal Theater. Programs are even offered for parents.

Inner city and urban areas in Rust Belt cities are enormously challenging places for a child to grow up in. While much attention has been paid to downtown re-development in places like Detroit and Baltimore, far less has been devoted to the development of children, especially minority children, in low-income neighborhoods. If former industrial cities are to recover they must go beyond courting talent from outside the region, or coaxing those in the suburbs to move back. Economic development and social policy should target art programs and other educational initiatives as part of larger strategy to maximize the development of talent in inner city neighborhoods.

Sean Posey graduated from the Academy of Art University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Documentary Photography. He is a multifaceted photographer whose work encompasses wedding photography to photojournalism. His work has been featured in a wide variety of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, and the New Republic.He is currently working on a solo photographic exhibit for the Butler Museum of Art in Youngstown entitled “The People of Youngstown.” Sean will graduate in 2011 from Youngstown State University with a Master’s Degree in Urban History. View his works online at