Community cooperation a critical element in positive change


Watching the bright vinyl canvases unfurl and become affixed to drab concrete arches Tuesday morning was a sight to behold, as the colorful interpretations of the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water took up residence on their 14 to 21-foot high permanent homes beneath the Route 9 overpass at Requa Street. 

The fact that they were installed the morning after a rancorous Common Council meeting offers a fitting juxtaposition upon which to reflect. 

The murals are the first of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) projects to see the light of day. Since 2019 when the state awarded Peekskill a $10 million grant to revitalize the downtown and create vibrant neighborhoods, there have been countless conversations and meetings with city officials and the public about what we want our city to look like. It has been an inclusive – and often exhaustive – process. 

The artwork the murals were created from was the culmination of input from nearly 2,000 Peekskill residents, who worked with thousands of pieces of paper over six months, painting, stenciling, stamping and cutting. The two artists, Candace Winter and Christine Knowlton, who envisioned the project assembled the pieces of paper to present vivid mosaics that we see in all their glory on the arches. The dedication and tenacity of the artists is an example of what can be accomplished with a guiding vision.  

What transpired at Monday’s Common Council meeting was an illustration of what happens when perceptions are misinterpreted, and language is insufficient for expressing emotions around extremely sensitive issues. 

Mayor Vivian McKenzie summed it up correctly when she said “We don’t need to be hurting each other’s feelings, we all live here and we have to learn to live with one another and respect one another. ”

The bitterness and hurt that was palpable from the Council dais, from the audience and at the podium, stems from years of cultural insensitivity and disrespect that isn’t limited to just Peekskill. We swim in a culture that is awash with racism and bias, and we see the ramifications of that every day. What was on display during the exchanges Monday evening was the unattractive underside of a community of diverse cultures living in four square miles. What was unveiled on Tuesday morning showed the positive possibilities that can result when the same residents strive to come together for their common good. 


Bench outside Assumption Church on S. Division Street (Photo by Regina Clarkin)

We are at a crossroads as a city. We are attractive to people who want to move here because of the very diversity that causes friction. We have a choice going forward as we grow. Are we up for engaging in laborious, painful work of truth and reconciliation that is necessary to move beyond hurts and resentments that have been simmering for generations? Or do we want our culturally diverse city to be mere ‘window dressing’?

Every challenge presents an opportunity. The mayor tasked the Human Relations Commission as the vehicle for guiding the process of healing divisions. It’s helpful to remember that just under ten percent of Peekskill’s population had a hand in creating the murals. It truly was a community effort, involving the recent residents of our city, our elderly neighbors, children, businesses and visitors.  That same energy can be channeled toward respectful dialogue and creative collaboration around issues of racial division.  

We have the potential to become a mosaic that isn’t just visually stunning as the Five Elements are, but rather an ethnically diverse city with a foundation as solid as those arches keeping Route 9 aloft.