Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trompe l'oeil Murals in Prospect Place

Before we turn our attention away from Park Slope's murals, note should be taken of some interesting trompe l'oeil work on the south side of Prospect Place between Flatbush & 6th Avenues in the north Slope. The side of the Italianate house at 96 Prospect Place, which overlooks an empty lot, has been enhanced with a bay window:

96 Prospect Place - unprotected

92 Prospect Place also has false windows painted on the side facade:

92 Prospect Place - unprotected

There are additional windows painted on the side of 84 Prospect Place, just visible on the right of the photograph above.

We know nothing for certain about these windows and would appreciate hearing from anyone who does. Email us via the Park Slope Civic Council website, or leave a message in the comments below.

However, a possible clue may be found in the "Murals" entry, written by Greta Berman, in the Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson:

Trompe l'oeil was made popular by Richard Haas, whose first mural in the city was painted outside a loft on Prince Street in SoHo in 1974; his later work included a series of storefronts along Mulberry Street and murals for Prospect Place in Brooklyn... [p. 782]

Could the Encyclopedia article be referring to the Prospect Place murals shown above?

Richard Haas has a website wherein he lists his mural work. There are very few listings for Brooklyn, and no listing directly cites Prospect Place. However, the second-oldest listing cites "Brooklyn Gas & Electric, New York City". It is remotely conceivable that Brooklyn Union Gas could have commissioned distinguished muralist Richard Haas to create these murals, in a variation of BUG's "Cinderella" program to invest in Brooklyn's brownstone belt. However, we've looked all over the web and have found nothing (other than the Encyclopedia article) to support this theory.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More Park Slope Murals

Park Slope has other kinds of murals besides the community murals we have been reviewing in previous posts.

The south side of Union Street between 6th & 7th Avenues features the Dixon's Bike Shop mural, featuring a penny-farthing and Victorian-era cyclists:

Although we might call this a "commercial mural" rather than a "community mural", it is a very jolly mural nonetheless.

Another specialized mural form might be termed the memorial mural, created by neighbors to commemorate a beloved community member, often carried off too soon. The following example, from our comprehensive photo archive of Park Slope circa 2008, commemorates "Gee" who was taken in 2005, aged 22. The mural is from the south side of Degraw Street between 4th & 5th Avenues:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Water is the Life of NYC

Water is the Life of NYC is Park Slope's most recent community mural. Another project of the Groundswell mural group, it was completed in 2008 and depicts New York City's water cycle. The mural overlooks the corner of 4th Avenue and Sackett Street, where there is an entrance to the city's water tunnel no. 3. The course of water from the Catskills reserviors, over the Croton Dam, and through the tunnel system to city residents' taps serves as the mural's "connecting device".

Water is the Life of NYC, 4th Avenue and Sackett Street

From the Groundswell website:

The system of delivery of water from the rural New York to NYC is depicted in an effort to make New Yorkers more aware of how precious their water is. The allegorical figure of Mother Nature hovers over the two main reservoirs that feed water to the city. The Sandhogs, the urban miners who dig the tunnels to bring the water to the city, are depicted digging a third water tunnel. Elements of the urban and rural environments are shown together in harmony while in the central image and focal point of the mural, people are encouraged to drink tap water in reusable bottles.
The mural is aimed at “raising consciousness of how precious water is as a resource to us”, says team participant Christina Cacioppo. Alongside the mural the team also developed a pledge urging people to follow guidelines for water conservation. Anyone signing the pledge received a sticker also designed by the team. Fellow team member Zane Smith added, “This mural reflects the global issue of water as a precious resource, and as only seven percent of the world’s water is drinkable we shouldn’t take our water for granted”. Team member Federico Tenorio stated “the purpose of the mural is to also show where the water comes from and how it gets to us”.

If "murals are the people's blackboard", as Pablo Neruda has said, then it is interesting to compare the iconography of Water is the Life of NYC with earlier murals in Park Slope. Gone are the raised fists of resistance, imperialist eagles, flames and other violent imagery, replaced by depictions of harmony with nature, in keeping with the resurgence of ecological thinking in society today. Even the Park Slope Civic Council, through its local community grants program, contributed funds to help create this mural!

The mural certainly enlivens what was previously a rather dreary corner; the photo below is from our comprehensive Park Slope photographic survey and shows the site before the mural was installed:

4th Avenue and Sackett Street, before mural

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Peace is Not a Dream in Storage

The Rite Aid at the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street in Park Slope has come in for its share of abuse on this blog.

But only when we read On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weismann did we realize the role this Rite Aid played in another nasty fight over a community mural in Park Slope.

5th Avenue & 10th Street, SW corner

Our last post reviewed the unfortunate events surrounding the destruction of Mary Patten's First Street Mural in 1977. Park Slope was apparently to wait over 20 years for its next community mural, and it too was destroyed prematurely because of the opposition of nearby residents.

The 10th Street mural was organized by the new Groundswell organization, incorporated in 1998. Peace is Not a Dream in Storage was a response to a series of attacks on women using the 9th Street/4th Avenue subway station in 1999. Groundswell organized a group of teen-aged girls from the nearby Center for Anti-Violence Education to serve as the mural's artists. According to the authors of On the Wall:

Not until the mural was finished did objections -- never previously expressed -- arise from a small segment of the community. Cultural differences and fears about race, gentrification, and property values ultimately led to the mural's destruction.

At the mural dedication, amidst the controversy, the young artists eloquently stated the mural's intent and what they hoped it would achieve: "We wanted to send a strong message that problems need to be solved, not hidden away in a box... We want to publicly express our cumulative disgust with violence...

Instead of entering into a dialogue with the artists and the mural sponsors, a small group of residents circulated a petition demanding that Rite Aid "remove this insulting and ugly mural" because, in the words of one homeowner, "it makes "our 'hood look ghettoish".

A Rite Aid representative, to his/her credit, initially backed the mural and tried to facilitate a meeting between Groundswell, the artists, and nearby residents, in order to resolve differences. A series of talks and meetings dragged on for months. Ultimately Rite Aid turned against Groundswell and the artists, and the mural disappeared under a coat of whitewash.

A contemporary account of the controversy can be found in the New York Times archive, here.

One begins to suspect, after the premature destruction of Mary Patten's First Street Mural, and of Groundswell's Peace is not a Dream in Storage, more than 20 years later, that Park Slope is particularly inhospitable to community murals. Why is that, we wonder?

One also suspects that Ride Aid's corporate policies were soon changed to preclude any possibility that such an unpleasant situation could ever recur. The idea that a store manager would even permit a community mural to be painted on the side of the store seems almost quaint these days. Even if he or she liked the idea, one suspects the current corporate policy says, in effect, that "no unauthorized store decoration shall be undertaken by any manager" and that failure to comply with this policy is tantamount to "voluntary resignation".

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mary Patten's First Street Mural

Buoyed by the success of her 1976 Douglass Street Mural, Mary Patten commenced plans the following year for another community mural in First Street, just above Fifth Avenue. It was perhaps another attempt to heal the animosities exposed by the Park Slope riot, just a few years past.

The authors of On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City describe Patten's approach to the First Street Mural, and the differences between this project and the Douglass Street Mural:

Seven blocks separated the two projects, presenting Patten with a new set of residents, mostly white, with different values and concerns. For the First Street Mural (1977), Patten recruited local teen artists from the Youth Corps summer employment program. Its low-paying jobs rarely attracted the area's white youth, who were more likely to gain employment in the private sector, and the teens of color who were hired considered themselves lucky to get jobs.

One already suspects that this project is perhaps going to encounter difficulties. If the mostly white residents were not already uneasy by "outsiders" coming onto their block, they became truly alarmed when they saw the actual designs for the mural:

In the mural, long lines of youth wait for non-existent jobs, fights break out over the few existing opportunities, and a policeman with a nightstick arrests a protesting youth...

The first concerns were voiced... at a First Street block party where "there was a handful of people -- white homeowners -- who felt the mural theme was 'too violent, too political' and did not contain enough unity images"...

The group began to paint, but as the mural neared completion, the artists heard rumors that some First Street residents wanted to whitewash the wall. The rumors were true. Before the artists could organze a community meeting, the mural was defaced, bombed by white paint, the perpetrator or perpetrators unknown. The muralists were quick to point out the irony of the act that people criticizing the imagery as violent had ignored the violence inherent not only in the mural's defacement but also in the racial insults later hurled at the artists.

There is a heartbreaking photograph of the defaced mural in On the Wall. The imagery seems entirely consistent with the many other community murals of its time, combining depictions of challenges faced by the city's youth, together with more hopeful images of a diverse group of residents, coming together in common cause, working in unity for more jobs, better housing, equal justice, and an end to racism.

The artists were devastated by the racism and the hatred underlying the comments expressed by some white residents: "There are too many Black people in the picture," and "Black and Latino teenagers could never have thought up this mural in the first place." The main objection to the mural likely was the fear expressed by one resident: "It's going to bring down property values."

After a period of impasse, permission for the mural was rescinded by the apartment building on which it was painted, and the defaced mural was whitewashed in the middle of the night.

On the Wall's authors, Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman, frequently emphasize the fragile nature of community murals: a mural can fall into disrepair; its host building can be demolished; a new building can arise to block an existing mural; a wall on which it is painted can require repair or rebuilding. In the case of the First Street Mural, however, the project lost the essential community support on which every mural depends.

One still finds a faint trace of the First Street Mural today, on the north side of First Street, just above 5th Avenue. The mural covered only the first few stories of the apartment building overlooking the parking lot, and the whitewashed wall remains today, a kind of palimpsest of the aborted community mural and the drama that briefly surrounded it:

Site of Mary Patten's First Street Mural in Park Slope

Friday, October 2, 2009

The 1973 Park Slope Riot

As we wrote our previous post about Mary Patten's Douglass Street Mural, we were struck by the On the Wall authors' assertion that several Black families had been firebombed out of their homes in lower Park Slope in the mid-1970s. We could not simply pass this assertion by, so we tried to research those events. And although we were unable to discover more about those particular incidents, we did stumble upon something else that provides insight into the social conditions from which Mary Patten's community murals emerged: the Park Slope riot of 1973.

In those days, Park Slope's 5th Avenue was vastly different from the baby-carriage-clogged restaurant row that it is today. Union Street was the dividing line between a largely Italian community to the south, and a growing Puerto Rican community to the north. Tensions between these communities simmered along 5th Avenue; the intersection of 5th Avenue and Union Street was the epicenter of this tension; and Park Slope exploded in late June of 1973.

Tuesday, June 26, 1973, was primary day, and Puerto Rican candidate Herman Badillo was in a tight race for nomination in the Democratic mayoral primary runoff election. He lost narrowly that day to Abe Beame. Late that evening, a car pulled up in front of 6 Berkeley Place, just above 5th Avenue. Armed men emerged, firing at two Puerto Rican brothers who were sitting on the stoop, wounding both. The assailants drove off, yelling "if Badillo had won, we would have killed you!"

Word of the assault spread quickly on Wednesday, June 27, and as darkness fell, large groups of Puerto Rican and Italian Park Slopers gathered near the intersection of 5th Avenue and Union Street. Insults were hurled; then bottles and bricks; then people began throwing hundreds of fireworks; and the riot was on, with windows smashed, cars firebombed, and finally gunfire exchanged along 5th Avenue. Five youths were shot, and five police were injured trying to break up the fight:

New York Times, Thursday, June 28, 1973

The worst injured was 15-year-old Jose Colon, shot through the neck and paralyzed from the neck down. The next day, police found spent .22-caliber shells atop 238 5th Avenue (now the Sunflower Academy), on the Italian side, and later found a rifle with sniperscope on the building's fire escape.

News accounts note that the windows of the Manufacturer's Hanover Bank branch at the corner 5th Avenue and Union street were smashed out, and the building was firebombed; presumably it was the building on the southeast corner:

5th Avenue and Union Street, southeast corner

New York Times photographs

Interestingly, the New York Times accounts indicate that the ground-floor apartment at 6 Berkeley Place, where the initial attack occurred, was "the headquarters of a Puerto Rican political group called the Machetes." A detective noted that "this is not a gang, but a political organization that wants independence for Puerto Rico," and a member of the group indicated that it was an offshoot of the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican social service organization modeled somewhat after the Black Panthers:

New York Times, Friday, June 29, 1973

A 2006 Times account of the riot notes that the Machetes were "by some accounts a street gang and by others a Marxist political group."

The Machetes, or Macheteros, are apparently still in existence today, a clandestine organization still fighting for Puerto Rican independence. They are also called the Boricua Popular Army and are described by the FBI as a terrorist group.

Below, Puerto Rican residents of Park Slope, standing in front of the ground-floor Macheteros headquarters at 6 Berkeley Place:

New York Times photograph

The detailing above the ground floor windows has been shaved off since the New York Times photograph was taken in 1973, but the location of the Times photograph is easily recognizable today:

6 Berkeley Place, left

6 Berkeley Place - Macheteros headquarters, 1973

6 Berkeley Place - detail

The 1973 Park Slope riot had a sad coda three decades later, in 2004, when Jose Colon, the 15-year-old shot through the neck on the night of the riot, ultimately died. The wound was said to be a contributing factor in his death. The shooter, who had earlier served three years on a charge of reckless endangerment, was then charged with 2nd degree murder, but ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in 2006 and was sentenced to two to six years.

Such was the charged atmosphere of lower Park Slope in which Mary Patten soon began to organize around the creation of her Douglass Street Mural, which both frankly acknowledged the reality of social conflict, but also pointed toward the possibility of communities working together in cooperation.

One could make the case that Park Slope's tradition of cooperation was already quite evident in 1973. Historian Francis Morrone, in his recent book about Park Slope, notes that the riots occurred just one month before the current Park Slope Historic District was designated in July, 1973. And as the Park Slope Food Coop's sign in Union Street declares, the Coop was "est. 1973".