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Students Use Artwork and Poetry to Examine Blighted Cityscapes

What is and what could be, as visualized by CEPA students.

Reclaiming Buffalo

In the fall of 2010, Writing with Light, a collaboration between CEPA Gallery and Just Buffalo Literary Center, debuted a new after-school program focused on offering participants a fresh perspective on the city they live in. Educating a select group of Buffalo public school students from middle schools throughout the city, the Reclaiming Buffalo project was divided into six sessions, the sixth and final of these sessions ending this month. Murals from the project will be seen on display in the Market Arcade building in September as part of the annual Writing with Light exhibition. These murals will be completed by mid-June and given to each of the local community centers that helped promote and host Reclaiming Buffalo.

Consisting of eight two-hour weekly meetings, the Reclaiming Buffalo project is an ambitious but rewarding opportunity for participants. First, students photograph boarded-up and dilapidated buildings in their neighborhoods or take pictures of closed businesses and empty spaces that mar the beauty of downtown Main Street. They are then trained by a CEPA teaching artist to use Photoshop software to express how they would like to see these locations altered. Digitally converting broken-down homes and shells of former shops into mansions and spas, students are able to reclaim buildings according to their own personal visions. Throughout the project, poetry exercises and other reflective writing assignments help young participants think critically and creatively about their communities as they imagine what these communities could eventually become.

Instead of disparaging the city, Reclaiming Buffalo is about conceptualizing how it can reach its ideal potential. Aptly the program is targeted toward children who may well one day be running and transforming Buffalo in a very real sense, implementing the progressive ideas implanted in them at an early age.

“I don’t want these kids to leave here,” says photography teaching artist Becky Moda. “I want them to be proud of where they live. I want them to be able to imagine, to recreate and re-invent their own community and know they have the power to do that.”

The Reclaiming Buffalo project also brings together students from schools across the city, working toward a more united Buffalo. “Part of the agenda is to try and bridge the weird gap that exists between East and West Buffalo,” says poetry teaching artist Jerome Gentes. Reclaiming Buffalo’s afterschool sessions provide a chance for students of various backgrounds from different sections of Buffalo to get to meet and work with one another.

This cooperative effort inspires students to consider Buffalo’s economic decline as less a depressing finality and more as grounds for improvement and regeneration. “There’s a lot of space in Buffalo,” says Moda. “We are empowering students to think about these spaces in different ways. Instead of them thinking, ‘Oh, that’s abandoned space, we can’t go there,’ we are empowering them to imagine what can be there.”

“We want them to think of it as an opportunity,” adds Gentes. “These places are not fixed or shut or decrepit forever.”

Gentes emphasizes the writing component of Reclaiming Buffalo, believing the poetry that the students produce supports the aims of the project. “It’s great to see the words and images come together,” he says.

Reclaiming Buffalo is funded by a grant from the Community Foundation for a Greater Buffalo. The program is directed by Lauren Tent of CEPA Gallery and Barbara Cole of Just Buffalo Literary Center. Both a productive and safe outlet for student creativity and a source of inspiration that encourages the redemption and renewal of decaying areas of the city, the Reclaiming Buffalo project strives to instill a sense of hope and possibility in young people who may grow to turn their lofty dreams into stunning realities.

ryan wolf

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