Britta Lokting is a writer based in New York. She is a features reporter at Narratively and a humor columnist at The Forward.
A mural celebrating Jewish heritage anchored a wall on New York City's Lower East Side for 40 years, then disappeared overnight. Now, the original artists are looking to start over, and bringing newcomers along.
On an overcast April morning, Sara Krivisky is scouting New York’s Lower East Side for a rectangular brick wall. She’s a petite woman with wild, strawberry blonde hair and tanned skin. Now 61, she grew up in the neighborhood and keeps an apartment in the same complex where her parents, who survived the Holocaust in Poland, settled after the war.
Krivisky is looking for the perfect spot for a mural. She’s accompanied by Terry Keller, her childhood friend, Tsipi Ben-Haim, the director of CITYarts, Inc., an organization focused on youth programs that commissions murals around the city, and Ben-Haim’s intern, Hannah Klemm. Krivisky has a gift for bringing folks together. About thirty minutes into their mission, the group pauses on Grand Street, a major thoroughfare that hooks up to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. Krivisky has just expressed concern about a wall on an Apple Bank; Keller nixed another slice of brick for being too skinny. But across the way, taking up almost half a city block on the façade of the Henrietta Szold School, is a clean, blank slate that Keller has eyed for months. It’s a broad swath of brick with clear visibility across a main intersection, hitting all the right marks.
“Isn’t that an amazing wall?” Keller asks, sucking in his breath.
The group crosses over to get a better look. It so happens that Keller’s 89-year-old mother lives in the apartment cattycorner, which sits above a kosher grocery store and Moishe’s Bakery and across from a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bathhouse.
“We’re going to go inside,” says Ben-Haim, already walking toward the door. By the time the others arrive in the foyer, she is asking security to phone the principal.
In the early 1970s, Cityarts Workshop, the precursor to CITYarts, Inc., approached the Jewish institution Young Israel about painting a mural. Young Israel had a center at 227 East Broadway across from the proposed mural site. It is now a vacant lot. During the summer of 1973 about a dozen teens from the center, including Krivisky and Keller, sketched out ideas, projected Polaroid photos onto a mock-up, and perched atop scaffolding to trace the story of their ancestry on the wall adjacent to the Bialystoker Nursing Home, which overlooked a parking lot. They painted the mural in the sky blue, mustard yellow, and earthy red-and-brown tones of the ‘70s.
The nine sections of the narrative arc progressed starting from the upper left hand corner. Immigrants streamed in through Ellis Island, a man hunched over a table in the sweatshops, Jews perished in the Holocaust, and there was a depiction of the massacre at the Munich Olympics. The bottom-right corner completed the story with a collage of the teens’ busts, meant to portray the future.
The Jewish Heritage Mural became an emblem of East Broadway on the Lower East Side for the next forty-three years. It was the second oldest mural in the city.
“There was a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem building,” says Susan Caruso-Green, a former Executive Director at Cityarts Workshop and the overseer of the mural. “Over time, the entire community embraced it as, ‘This is our heritage.’”
Last November, a developer unexpectedly whitewashed it.
On November 4, Robert Kaliner, the head of the development firm Ascend Group, purchased a row of three properties along East Broadway for $47.5 million. The sale included the now-landmarked Bialystoker Home, a vacant plot overgrown with weeds and strewn with garbage bags, and the office building on which the mural was already chipping paint.
Three days later, Krivisky’s brother watched from his apartment across the street as workers slathered cream paint over the mural. He alerted his sister and Keller’s brother, who phoned Keller. The neighborhood blog, the Lo-Down, picked up the story and the news spread within hours. Krivisky’s daughter posted a photo on Facebook with a heart emoji, lamenting the loss of the mural. There was a vigil with flowers and candles. CITYarts, which has commissioned over 300 murals and mosaics in New York, owns the copyright of its sketches and designs, but it cannot stop an owner or developer from demolishing a building.
Locals knew the building would probably be razed. It had been sold to a different owner a year prior, and expectations were set. But the manner in which it was destroyed infuriated residents and others who appreciated the mural, such as historians, preservationists, writers, and artists. Krivisky and others might have been able to save the bricks if Kaliner had given notice.
The gentrification of the Jewish Lower East Side has made headlines for decades and is often the subject of nostalgic anguish, with people recalling the way things were and telling stories of their grandparents who grew up there. Over time, many second- or third-generation Jews moved to Brooklyn or the suburbs. Dress shops closed, scribe masters relocated, yarmulke stores and kosher shops shuttered, family businesses faded, and the synagogues once dotting the neighborhood were decimated or flipped. By 2002, the New York Times declared this “primal homeland for American immigrant Jews has lost so much of its cultural texture and so many of its living touchstones that it may be time finally to pronounce it dead.” In 2008, the Lower East Side made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places, a roundup of areas or venues threatened by neglect.
Throughout all this, the Jewish Heritage Mural remained one of the few staying relics of the Lower East Side. It brightened up a drab section of East Broadway. It taught travelers a vital history. It was a source of pride. Many admired its endurance to withstand gentrification, but given the transient nature of murals, were not surprised by its eventual fate.
The mural was painted during a decade when ethnic pride and identity politics flourished in the Lower East Side and across America. The Vietnam War protests and agitations for civil rights throughout the ‘60s, followed by the Black Power and second-wave feminism, began a golden age of mural-making in America from Boston to Los Angeles. New York City, like other parts of the country, suffered from drugs, crime, shoddy landlords and a fiscal crisis. Community art became an outlet to declare unrest.
“The idea of using murals to reflect political decisions and heritage and problems we’re experiencing in the poor neighborhoods in the Lower East Side, that took hold,” says Caruso-Green. “The kids said, ‘Yeah we want to speak our minds.’”
Cityarts Workshop, which became the most distinguished and proficient mural program in the city, spawned from the Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center in 1968, three blocks south of East Broadway. During the early ‘70s, Caruso-Green and Sue Kiok, Cityarts’ founder, encouraged teens to participate in street art projects, particularly ‘protest’ murals, which were meant to incite change. For example, the 1972 “Arise from Oppression” was painted on the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse in the Lower East Side. Sixty teens drew a burning cross to symbolize dishonorable landlords who torched buildings. At the sight of the cross, the Jewish community went berserk and the symbol was turned into an ankh. In response, Caruso-Green suggested a Jewish mural, which pioneered a series of ‘heritage’ murals around the city that honored the histories of communities like Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans.
“Murals became about celebration and achievement with titles like ‘Building the Community,’” says Jane Weissman, who co-wrote On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City. “And murals were considered poor people’s art. They were in these neighborhoods with a lot of walls and vacant lots or where it was just so dreary that people looked for color.”
The neighborhood demographics had already begun to change, and there were efforts to protect its Jewish identity. Throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘90s, several Jewish politicians—most notably the former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver—thwarted development plans for low-income housing in an area south of Delancey Street called Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. The project would have invited in other ethnic groups, like Puerto Ricans. The Jewish population ebbed regardless. By 1995, the neighborhood only held “a flavoring” of Jewish life, according to tour guide Philip Schoenberg. The murals waned too. The ‘golden age’ ended as the ‘90s began, when funding dried up, new developments arose, wall space ran out, and Cityarts Workshop closed to become CITYarts, Inc. Weissman estimates 80 percent of the hundreds of murals painted in the city over the decades no longer exist and only about 10 have been recreated.
Today, East Broadway retains only a smattering of its Jewish roots. It’s a wide street on the edge of the Lower East Side that spans about eight city blocks but because of the low-slung buildings and big sky, it can feel immense and desolate. Much of its past is now confined to easily missed markers hidden in plain sight. The word “Forward” is stamped on the 10-story luxury condo building once home to that Jewish newspaper, a dusty Talmud is kept in a cabinet on the third floor of the local library branch, and there’s a mosaic map in Seward Park where kids play tag across tiled ribbons inscribed with odes to immigrants.
The young people who flock to the bars and trendy restaurants surrounding East Broadway are likely oblivious to these ghostly vestiges of a once-robust Jewish quarter. Across from the Kaliner property, an “experimental” ice cream store sells concoctions made of toasted milk and celery. Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese restaurant offers a duck roasted in lotus leaf and clay and cracked at the table for $100. A hip Mexican joint near the subway stop sells grain bowls and a café beside it makes a breakfast burrito specifically to nurse a hangover.
Krivisky’s confab with the principal at the Henrietta Szold School is short. There isn’t much he can do personally, but he promises to reach out to a few folks to get the ball rolling.
Even more than finding the right wall, Krivisky is worried about rallying other organizations to help spread the word. CITYarts, Inc. relies solely on donations, and a mural could cost between $75,000 and $100,000. It might be another year before painting begins.
Pressure from Krivisky and others has forced Kaliner to reconsider his role with the mural. Before the scouting tour in April, he sat down with the group in Krivisky’s apartment to discuss potential plans for the site over bagels and lox.
“We are trying very hard to find ways to bring that culture and that unity back to the neighborhood, potentially on our site or public areas,” Kaliner later told me about the new mural.
The new painting will add onto the original narrative and incorporate scenes that represent the present-day Lower East Side, which is now home to a large Chinese population. Ben-Haim thinks 9/11 and issues of gentrification will become a part of the story, but she plans to let the present-day community youth decide what they want to depict.
Krivisky sounds hopeful after the scouting trip, but still uncertain and slightly skeptical about how the project will ultimately come together.
“I actually don’t know where we’re heading. There’s a lot of planning that needs to happen,” she says. “But I’m here to go wherever it goes.”