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New Kensington residents gather for community cleanup, mural dedication

BRIAN C. RITTMEYER| Sunday, April 11, 2021 6:06 p.m.

Much like the unfinished mural that was dedicated Sunday, many see New Kensington as a work in progress worth celebrating.

“This is the beginning of the new New Kensington,” said Kim Louis, a city resident and director of Sonward Youth Programs. “We want to honor the people who live here and welcome new people. This is a sign that is happening.”

Louis was expecting about 50 people to turn out for a community cleanup organized by Sonward, Olde Towne Overhaul and Westmoreland Community Action. Instead, nearly three times that many came and, split into 20 teams, gathered garbage and litter between the railroad tracks and Third Avenue, from Arnold to Parnassus.

“A diverse community came out, and everyone was welcome and everybody participated equally,” she said.

Bob Goga, a New Kensington native living in Lower Burrell, made his way down Fifth Avenue with Hilary Stewart, who works in New Kensington and lives in Freeport, with trash bags and grabbers. They had just met.

“I didn’t want to keep driving by,” Goga said. “I wanted to know I stopped and did something.”

Stewart works at Seton Hill Child Services in the city, where she says her students are “amazing kiddos.”

“I want to see it be a better space for them to play in,” she said. “It’s not as bad as everyone seems to think it is. I work with some amazing families.”

“There’s a lot of pride in New Ken,” she said. “The people who live here are very proud and they want the best for their community.”

In total, the volunteers filled a 30-yard dumpster, and Louis said they could have filled two. Some went around with pickups for the bigger things. Items gathered included couches, beds, tires and televisions.

They began at noon, and by 3 p.m. Louis said some volunteers were telling her there was no more trash to pick up.

“If the community can coordinate and work together, the town is a better place because of it,” she said. “We can get mighty things done here.”

‘A tremendous art project’

Many who took part in the cleanup gathered first at Voodoo Brewery, then made their way to Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue for the dedication of a community mural, the second put up through the Community Arts & Reintegration Project.

Project director Tim Holler, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, said installation of the three-story mural was 70% to 80% complete and should be finished by the end of the week.

“This is really a tremendous art project and a great addition as part of one of the gateways into the city of New Kensington,” Mayor Tom Guzzo said. “I’m sure that everyone who drives or walks past this mural will recognize some of the faces and symbols both of our past with a nod to our future and they will smile and be proud to be a citizen of New Kensington.”

The mural is the 86th for artist Bernie Wilke.

“I’m just humbled and honored to be a tiny part of the revitalization of New Kensington,” Wilke said. “Once a large body — like a town like New Ken — gets moving, it’s hard to stop that momentum. There’s a lot of momentum being built right now, and it’s going to be really hard to stop that.”

Residents helped paint the mural’s nearly 100 panels. Joyce Gross said she worked on one near its upper left corner at a paint day in October.

“People have a lot of pride in what New Kensington used to be and would like to see it there again,” Gross said. “They’re trying very hard. Things are different now. Small towns are coming back.”

New Kensington police Officer Brian Shaw, who was killed in the line of duty in 2017, is among the community members depicted on the mural. His mother and brother, Lisa and Steffan Shaw Jr., attended the dedication.

“At this point he’s a part of New Ken history. It’s an honor they would even consider putting him up here,” Steffan Shaw Jr. said. “You’ve got some big names up here who have done amazing things. For Brian to be included is an honor to our family.”

The first such mural was dedicated in Mt. Pleasant in 2018. Holler said he is looking for a location for a third in Westmoreland County.

“There’s demand for it, which is going to keep the program going,” he said.

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