Professor makes plans to drive bus to stop violence

Professor makes plans to drive bus to stop violence

Graphic design professor Thomas Starr believes his work can serve a function, not just exist as content.

Starr and Ann McDonald, an associate academic specialist in Northeastern’s visual arts department, co-authored an essay in 2005, stressing the importance of “the intended outcome or result of the message” of graphics and “[shifting] the role of the designer from passive to active.”

Later this year, Starr will put a graphic with this idea on a bus. The graphic will be a memorial to young victims of violence in Boston and a medium to inform people about the urban violence problem.

The design, called “Millennium Memorial: Remembering Boston’s Children 1980 to 2005,” is “made up of testimonies or statements by young people primarily about the young people that were killed,” Starr said.

Starr’s idea traces back to 1999, when he applied for and received a grant from Northeastern’s Research and Scholarly Development Fund to pay for a summer workshop on campus that year for high school students to study violence in Boston. This was in response to the waves of violence in the 1980s and 1990s, Starr said.

All the students participating were exposed to violence at some point in their lives.

One student struggled through high school because she was pregnant at 17, while another student’s boyfriend got out of prison during the workshop, Starr said.

In their research, students came across the story of the Boston Strangler. The rapist and murderer first preyed on Anna Slesers, from 77 Gainsborough St., in 1962. Starr said the students paid particular attention to this incident because it took place so close to where they were studying. When they investigated the area, they discovered what Starr called a “crude memorial” to Slesers’s death: a red “X” with a box around it, still visible after almost 40 years.

Starr said he saw the “X” as a sign of a human need to remember such significant tragedies.

He decided that a better memorial to the victims of the Boston Strangler – still a notorious criminal in Boston – should not stay on Gainsborough Street.

“The idea was to somehow have a moving memorial even if it means it could only be temporary,” Starr said. “Something like that could do more good to maybe make people in other parts of the city realize the loss that’s going on in these marginalized areas of Boston is really just as tragic as if it had gone on in their own neighborhood.”

At that point, Starr set out on a mission to create a better memorial to victims of urban violence in Boston. He settled on creating a public-art project to be installed on a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus to combat ignorance and a lack of awareness among people in the safer Boston areas. He began designing a graphic to put on the bus that would give some insight into the nature of victims.

No names or photographs of the victims are present on the most recent rendition of the graphic, because, Starr said, including those items could “ghetto-ize the problem,” which could decrease the message’s effectiveness.

Starr said he saw the idea of putting the graphic on a bus as ideal for two reasons: First, it could travel through both safe and dangerous Boston neighborhoods, sending the message to all sorts of people. Second, he said he believes it could serve a civic purpose as a message from city government, which is crucial, since the problem is citywide, not specific to a few streets.

Starr received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a national foundation that funds artists’ endeavors, in April 2001 for the backing of his project.

He also enlisted the help of the Dorchester-based Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which provides support to families of victims of urban violence in Boston,

The institute gave him helpful information on Boston violence, he said, making his plan more feasible.

Then came September 11.

Discussions about urban violence in Boston shifted to other topics. And Starr’s effort to become a full-time tenured professor at Northeastern got in the way of the creation of the bus, he said.

In 2005, Starr still had everything needed to make the plan a reality, including the National Endowment for the Arts grant and he decided to finish his original plan.

And the timing was perfect, because that year there was a surge that of violence around Boston, Starr said.

“There was supposed to be a lesson in it, like, don’t let this happen again,” Starr said, “But now it’s also trying to wake people up to the fact that it is happening.”

Starr said the bus should be on the road by as early as July 1.

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