Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

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

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