A few weeks ago I was able to take two Jane’s Walks in the NYC neighborhood of East Harlem. (For a description of what a Jane’s Walk is, along with the description of the other Jane’s Walk I took, see my earlier post here.) Today, I want to focus on the second walk, titled Lost and Found Murals in East Harlem, which was led by Kathleen (“Kathy”) Benson Haskins. Kathy had actually tagged along on the first walk I took that day – she was the person who told us about the Manny Vega mosaic I talked about in my previous post – so by the time the second walk started we had already been introduced.
As regular readers of my blog know, I am a real fan of public art and street art, so Lost and Found Murals in East Harlem was the perfect walk for me. The main theme I took away from this Jane’s Walk was the importance of public art in creating and serving as the meeting point for community in this neighborhood. The area we explored in the second walk is the Latin-American part of East Harlem also known as El Barrio. The neighborhood is a treasure trove of community-focused murals.
A second important theme of this walk is the ephemeral nature of street murals. Without constant care and regular restoration, outdoor murals fade. They may be defaced, and, importantly, they and the building they are painted on may be torn down as a result of development and gentrification. There were murals we only heard about, as they no longer existed. Unlike unique buildings, which may be saved because of their architectural or historical importance, murals are not covered by federal or local landmark laws.
We learned about two artists with roots in the neighborhood and have multiple examples of their art on display. First, there is the artist James De La Vega, whose painted several portraits of Latino cultural leaders, including this one of Pedro Pietri, a Nuyorican (Puerto Rican-New Yorker) poet and playwright.
A few streets over, I found this mural of a different style, also by De La Vega.
The second artist was Manny Vega, whose art we were already introduced to in the prior walk. Vega’s work comes in many forms in East Harlem, but it’s always delightful to discover. For example, there was this mosaic memorial to Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican poet and activist who lived the last part of her life in New York City. We learned the tragic story of Julia’s death at the age of 39. After collapsing on the street and not being identified, she died of pneumonia in a nearby hospital and buried in a pauper’s grave. After her identity was determined later, she was returned to Puerto Rico and reburied.
A short distance away I spied these hand-printed posters expressing concerns of members of the community. As Kathy explained, the murals and protest posters marked spots where people would gather to share their concerns and organize.
Manny Vega’s art comes in other forms as well, such as the mural Espiritu. Here are a few of the images that are part of that mural.
Vega’s art also decorates local businesses, this time painted instead of tile mosaics.
There were even these more temporary wheatpaste-style images by Vega on the side of another building.
Vega also has a connection to this amazing mural, titled the Spirit of East Harlem. The mural was painted by artist Hank Prussing beginning in 1973, and Vega helped Prussing to complete the mural during the next 5 years. Years later after the elements had caused the mural to deteriorate and vandals had damaged it, Vega came back and restored it. One of the things that makes this mural special is that it portrays actual people from the community.
I love the fact that this mural shows men from the neighborhood playing dominoes, as during our walk we stumbled upon a domino tournament at a local democratic club.
Vega also created this mural for the East Harlem Tutoring Center. Located in the building’s lobby, the delightful mural shows teachers and students gathered outside.
Hanging on the outside of the Tutoring Center building was a large banner, designed by the students with Vega’s guidance. The theme was a response to the new American president’s anti-immigrant policies, which have created much anxiety among many school children in New York City who come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. The message of this art: #BuildLove, with a celebration of the city’s diversity.
As we continue our walk, we see many other examples of public art in various forms. There’s this colorful entrance to a small bodega.
There was this protest mural demanding the release of Oscar López Rivera from federal prison. López Rivera was associated with a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization seeking Puerto Rican independence. That organization was associated with more than a 100 bombings of U.S. targets, and López Rivera served 35 years in prison before being pardoned by President Barrack Obama during his last days in office. (There has always been some debate over López Rivera’s degree of involvement in the bombings, and much activism on his behalf. He’s still a very controversial figure.)
We can barely glimpse another mural behind a drummer at a street fair going on in the midst of our walking route.
And here are details from a large mural celebrating Latino pride and activism. The portraits are of Pedro Albizu Campos and Che Guevera.
Wait – through the fence we catch a glimpse of a garden and more art, owned by the community organization Hope Community, Inc. That organization has also providing support for many of the other mural projects in the neighborhood.
We learned about the “RIP” murals, sometimes painted to commemorate the lives of people who died in the community. Often, the subjects of such murals are really more like anti-heroes, possibly killed because of illegal activity. We came across this RIP mural, with candles and empty bottles clustered at its base.
Let’s end with this “postcard” style mural of the word “Harlem.” It’s a fun one, although as you can see below it’s difficult to capture in a single photograph. The vibrant mural incorporates the work of a number of prominent street artists.
But before we end, here is a picture of our very knowledgeable leader on this walk, Kathy. Kathy has significant knowledge of this area of East Harlem, and she worked until her retirement at the Museum of the City of New York. (Coincidentally, MCNY is one of my favorite museums in the city – I’ve written about it before here and here.) Kathy has offered Jane’s Walks in East Harlem for multiple years, so make sure you keep an eye out for her tours next year.