A Jane’s Walk in Douglaston, Queens

It’s May in New York City, which means that the Municipal Art Society has once again offered more than 200 neighborhood walks throughout the city. The walks honor Jane Jacobs, who was a journalist and community activist in New York City for many years. Jane Jacobs believed that urban development should take into account the community, and the annual walks illustrate that community-based theme. Last year I explored East Harlem during two unique Jane’s Walks. (You can read about those walks here and here.) This year I decided to use a Jane’s Walk to explore a neighborhood I had never been to before – Douglaston, in the borough of Queens.

The Jane’s Walk in Douglaston focused on the historic district, which is known as Douglas Manor. Douglas Manor was a planned community constructed in the early 20th century, not long after Queens became a part of New York City. What makes Douglas Manor special is its large collection of historic Arts and Craft style homes. In fact, those homes have resulted in Douglas Manor being named a New York City landmark. The walk was sponsored by the Douglaston Local Development Corporation and the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society, and was led by architects Kevin Wolfe, Victor Dadras, and Robert Dadras. Here’s Kevin Wolfe, who has led restoration efforts on a number of the community’s homes, explaining what characterizes the Arts and Craft style.

One of the things we quickly learned is that what makes the Arts and Crafts style special is its focus on handmade, craftsman-created architectural details. That means that Arts and Crafts homes can vary significantly in appearance and materials, often incorporating elements of other architectural styles as well. The diversity of Arts and Crafts design quickly became apparent on our walk, and early May is the perfect time to explore this neighborhood, with its many flowering trees. Here are just a few examples of the homes we discovered.

One of my favorite homes was this one, which was built by Norweigian painter and sculptor Trygve Hammer. I loved its unique character, and the fact that its handcrafted details made it fit the Arts and Crafts theme.

Interested in learning more about Douglas Manor? You can read the New York City Landmark report here, on the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society’s Website. To visit Douglas Manor in person, take the Long Island Railroad’s Port Washington line to Douglaston. The historic area is located a short walk north of the train station.

This seems like a good one for Jo’s Monday Walk – and, as always, I never do it on a Monday. If you haven’t checked out Jo’s blog, Restless Jo, I recommend it!

East Harlem Jane’s Walk 2017 (Part II): Community Murals

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.

This is another great walk for Jo’s Monday Walks. Have you checked out Jo’s blog? I recommend it!

East Harlem Jane’s Walk 2017 (Part I)

This past weekend marked an extraordinary event in New York City and more than 200 other cities around the world: Jane’s Walk. Jane’s Walk is named after Jane Jacobs, a journalist and urban activist who pushed city governments to include local residents in decisions regarding neighborhood development. As part of her efforts, she is often credited with leading opposition to the proposed construction of an expressway through Greenwich Village in Manhattan in the late 1960s, preserving that neighborhood’s character to this day. Now, every year, local volunteers take people on free tours of their neighborhoods. In New York City, those tours are coordinated by the Municipal Art Society, which also offers other tours throughout the year.

This year, there were 68 pages worth of Jane’s Walks to choose from in New York City. I decided to explore the neighborhood of East Harlem in Manhattan, also sometimes known as El Barrio. I actually took 2 walks on Saturday, both in that same neighborhood but focusing on different themes and traveling on different streets. My feet hurt by the end of it, but both walks offered rich treasures.

The first walk, which I will focus on in this post, was named “The Heritage of Italian East Harlem.” It was led by LuLu LoLo, an artist, playwright, and actor who traces her family history in East Harlem back more than 100 years. Here’s a photo of our fabulous guide for the walk.

I knew that this was going to be a fun walk, as it was like we were all great friends from the start. (Well, some people actually did know each other already – this tour attracted a number of walkers whose families had lived in the neighborhood.) Although we had plenty to see on this walk, what made it special was LuLo’s stories about growing up in the neighborhood, and her explanation of how the neighborhood has evolved over time. Much has changed in recent decades, but LuLo brought old family photos to provide a bridge between the present and her childhood memories of East Harlem.

From our starting point, LuLu drew our attention to a faded advertisement for Bloomingdales Department Store located on the side of a nearby brick building. Although the sign has faded beyond legibility, it has been there since LuLu’s earliest memories. (And LuLu admitted, upon one walker’s nosy question, that she is in her early 70s.) See if you can make out the weathered sign in the photo below.

LuLu spent some time describing the early makeup of the neighborhood, where immigrants had settled next to others from their old communities. On this street, on this block, lived the Italians from the province of Basilicata. Another street was home to Germans, another Irish, another Russian. Over here were Puerto Ricans, and shops owned by Jewish immigrants, with living quarters behind the storefronts, were there. Further down were African-American residents. I quickly came to appreciate the diversity, the complexity of East Harlem.

Along with the diverse population came complex politics. This corner, and a neighboring one before it, were known as “Lucky Corner,” the place where a stage was set up during campaign season for candidates to speak to the crowds. Want to gain the votes of the people in the neighborhood? Then you knew you had to come to Lucky Corner.

We learned about Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who earned a reputation as the protector of the working class, regardless of race or ethnicity. LuLu shared precious childhood memories of the congressman, who died of a heart attack at a young age, as well as Leonard Covello, an educator who became principal of a local high school and persuaded immigrant families to let their children go to school. As we walked along 116th Street, LuLu pointed out where these and other Italian Americans of note lived, as well as the music store that has been in the neighborhood for more than 60 years, the building formerly home to the Cosmo Theater, a row of tenement buildings where immigrant families have live generation after generation.

Soon we pass a community art project. Along one side of the art project, there is a suggestion box. Members of the community are invited to make suggestions about what the next version of the art walls will look like. The current theme: environmental concerns.

As we walk further, LuLu tells us more about her parents, Rose and Peter Pascale, who were long-time community activists. For many years, Peter ran Haarlem House, a settlement house that served the immigrant community of East Harlem. In recognition of his years of service, part of the street has been renamed Pete Pascale Place.

Here, our group stands in front of La Guardia Memorial House, built on the site of the old Haarlem House after the city determined that it needed replaced. The new community building is named after Fiorello La Guardia, onetime mayor of New York City. A senior center located on site is named after former Commissioner of Immigration Edward Corsi, another of East Harlem’s past residents.

On the side of this building we found this beautiful mosaic mural commemorating Dr. Antonia Pantoja, who spent her professional life taking care of the community of East Harlem. The mosaic is the work of local artist Manny Vega.

LuLu pointed out the former Benjamin Franklin High School building, where Leonard Covello was once principal. The building is now home to a specialized public high school known as the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics.

Our final stop was the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of only four Roman Catholic Churches designated as Pontifical Shrines in the Western Hemisphere. LuLu explained that Italian workmen labored to build the church in their off hours, but in the church’s early history the Italians were relegated to the basement for religious services and not allowed to worship in the main sanctuary. Unfortunately, the church’s exterior is concealed by construction scaffolding as the building undergoes repairs, so the only photo I could get outside was of this intriguing bulb-lit sign. (The shrine’s website has a photo of the building without the scaffolding, if you are interested.)

The interior was beautiful though, and here are some photos of the sanctuary and adjoining space.

At this point, the walk disbanded, and each of us went our own way. Despite my tired feet (walking on concrete has that effect!), I trekked to my next Jane’s Walk – also located in East Harlem – which was due to start soon. I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post.

As I think about it, a Jane’s Walk is a perfect fit for Jo’s Monday Walks. Have you checked out Jo’s blog? I recommend it!