Calling all superheroes from the neighborhood

by Jordan Green

They pulled some chairs into a circle in the community center of LaDeara Crest Estates to come up with a plan.

Nakida McDaniel, a community organizer with Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, was the convener. Johnny Collins, a muralist from Kernersville who works under the name Radio the Artist, would be responsible for executing the project. A handful of young male mentors drafted by McDaniel filled out the circle, including Brandon Cain, JP Pichardo and Malachi Pirrong. Michael Smith, Artemus Peterson and Andre Russell would filter in later.

“Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods worked primarily with girls,” McDaniel was saying. “The boys asked to be included. That was part of the reason for this call-out to young, male mentors. The boys kept saying, ‘You gotta get something for us to do. Is this only for girls?’” A community of brick garden-style apartments and cottages where many residents receive rental assistance, LaDeara Crest is tucked in a leafy grove between Piedmont Park and Smith Reynolds Airport – a somewhat bucolic setting that belies the gritty reputation of Winston- Salem east of US Highway 52. The area has had its share of violence: A teenage boy was shot to death in LaDeara Crest in 2006 in a murder that remains unsolved. And a shooting a couple blocks away rattled residents earlier this year.

McDaniel mentioned that she had seen boys outside the community center wearing bandannas on their heads. She asked the mentors what they made of it.

Cain, a member of the Tre Games rap crew and assistant director of Bethesda Center for the Homeless, said he thought the kids were only emulating rappers. Pichardo, a slender young man with dreadlocks who works with Cain at Bethesda Center, worried that they would be profiled by the police for their appearance.

Malachi Pirrong, a LaDeara Crest resident wearing a black Beatles Abbey Road T-shirt and a bandanna wrapped around his wrist, gauged the community’s harmony by noting that his mixed Puerto Rican and Italian heritage has never caused him any problems.

“As long as you don’t act like you’re better than someone else, you’re fine,” he said. “You just have to act like you’re one of them, or you want to be.”

“To me, this neighborhood is very blended,” she said. “Radio has his own story as a blended child. We’re all blended. You all know that, right?” McDaniel envisions a mural or some kind of movable art piece resulting from the initiative. Radio’s qualifications as point person include a completed mural at Petree Elementary and an imminent project in the City View neighborhood.

A fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, Radio likes to make art for the community and draw from it for inspiration.

“When I was working with the kids at Petree, a lot of them were shy,” he recalled. “I opened my notebook, and the whole cafeteria streamed in and said, ‘Oh, look at those drawings.’ That was my handshake.”

His concept for the LaDeara Crest project is heroes. “Who’s your superhero?” Radio asked. “Who do you admire? We’ll have the kids sit down and draw. They’ll draw the character. It might be Michael Jordan. Why is he your hero? ‘He taught me teamwork, how to stand out and be your own person.’ Or your dad. ‘He taught me about hard work.’” As if on cue, about a dozen boys, from about 6 years old to 13 years old, poured into the meeting room and took places at long tables stocked with crayons, colored markers and pencils.