Two women painting colorful panels outdoors with other artists in the background
Artists Murjani Holmes and Marthalicia Matarrita paint murals at a long-dormant construction site. With other artists, they are part of a project to decorate the fencing around construction sites as East Harlem awaits funding for a subway extension. Rebecca Bellan/CityLab

As East Harlem waits for the Trump Administration to fund the Second Avenue subway, the Uptown GrandScale Mural Project is changing blight to beauty.

Park Avenue at 125th street in Harlem isn’t posh, it’s a challenge. Clients of the neighborhood’s many substance abuse clinics loiter under the overpass between the two sides of the avenue. Garbage is scattered around construction fencing and vacant lots, and the pavement smells of urine in spots. Travelers moving between the 125th Street Metro North commuter rail station and the 4-5-6 Lexington Avenue subway stop don’t often stick around. But on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the community stepped out of the shadows to shine.

On September 7, around 30 artists gathered as part of a project to paint more than 1,500 feet of plywood green construction panels along 125th and 124th Streets. The Uptown GrandScale Mural Project aims to use public art to address blight in the neighborhood and provide opportunities for uptown artists to showcase their work.

“We’re doing the best we can to showcase that there is a strong culture and strong values here,” said Carey King, neighborhood resident and executive director of Uptown Grand Central, which coordinated the project. “When people currently come to this area of Harlem, we hear that it’s derelict. People ask, ‘Why are all these people poor and on drugs?’ With the mural project we’re trying to say, ‘Yes that’s what you may see when you come here, but there is a very important history and a deep and rich culture here.’”

A view of the east side of Park Avenue and 125th Street with artists at work, taken from the underpass in the center of Park Avenue. (Rebecca Bellan)

Much of the construction fencing in the neighborhood has been there for as long as many residents can remember, and will likely remain for a while yet. The Durst Organization bought the sites on the west and east sides of Park Avenue at 125th in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but they have yet to file any building permits, likely due to the city’s plans to extend the Second Avenue subway to East Harlem by 2029.

The NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s environmental statement lists lots in the middle of the two sites as “potential property acquisitions” needed to complete the second phase of the subway extension. While part of the long-promised subway extension opened to much fanfare in 2017, it only extended to the Upper East Side. The city is asking the federal government for $2 billion of the $6 billion it has estimated is required to finish the extension to 125th street. Sections of the line were built in the 1970s, but by the mid-1970s the work was halted due to a municipal fiscal crisis. And to the Harlemites and commuters who look at boarded-up blocks daily with no construction in sight, the corners of Park Avenue look like blight, rather than the future.

Living near abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and substandard housing is associated with violence, higher rates of chronic illness, stunted brain and physical development in children, mass retreat into unhealthy eating and exercise habits, and a breakdown of social networks and capital, according to a 2017 Urban Institute study.

The first section of murals was completed in August by artist Gera Lozano. (Rebecca Bellan)

Public art, on the other hand, has the ability to positively affect public health, both mental and physical. It has the ability to decrease stress and help develop a shared identity and a sense of ownership. In low-income neighborhoods, the presence of cultural resources like public arts projects is associated with a 14 percent decrease in cases of child abuse and neglect, a 5 percent decrease in obesity, and an 18 percent decrease in crime.

In 2015, Uptown Grand Central, the six-year-old nonprofit that has become a champion for the 125th Street-Metro North corridor, adopted the space underneath the Metro North tracks as a community plaza, cleaning it up and running weekly farmer’s markets, pop-up shops, live music, free zumba classes, and other community-driven events. That makeshift plaza has recently been closed for construction, but, undeterred, Uptown Grand Central has shifted its operations across the street to the southwestern corner of Park Avenue and 125th Street, where the panels of public murals begin. The first section of murals was completed in August by artist Gera Lozano, and the project continues on Sept 14 and 22, culminating in the third annual ‘Party on Park’ street festival that will shut down Park Avenue from 116th to 125th Streets.

“We’re hoping that when people start to see the energy going into this community, it’ll start to attract the investment and policy that it needs to really shine,” said King.

Creating art in public spaces in New York City is a complicated endeavor. Last year, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs announced the City Canvas program, a two-year pilot that allows two cultural nonprofits to commission and install artwork on construction structures like fences and sidewalk sheds. But the city offered no funding for the City Canvas project—only the assurance that those who wanted to beautify their neighborhoods by transforming ugly construction structures will not receive a fine.

Uptown Grand Central’s project isn’t part of this program. While the artists are technically performing an illegal act by painting on construction fencing, Uptown Grand Central approached the Durst Organization, which said it would pay any fines that the Department of Buildings issued, and the project has the support of the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, King said.

“We’re taught that art is something that lives in museums, and there aren’t living people doing it,” said Ayana Hosten, project coordinator for the Uptown GrandScale project. “So walking down the street, especially as a young person, and seeing someone who might even look like you painting, taking something out of their everyday life and transforming it—who knows what the impact of that is? That could trickle into what you feel about your own ownership of a public space, what the city owes to you, and what you contribute to the city, as well.”

The daughter of local business owner Dale Cole was one of many children taking chalk to the sidewalk and zipping happily around the artists while a DJ spun tunes, pedestrians stopped to chat with artists, and ladies sold coquitos (flavored ices).

“Just look at the vibrance here,” said Cole, owner of Daps Eats, a Jamaican restaurant. “It is improving the neighborhood. You don’t want to walk on the other side of the street. Everyone is passing here. It does bring energy to East Harlem. I love it.”

Artist SFA works on his mural. (Rebecca Bellan)

The artists involved are either from Harlem or have a connection to the neighborhood, Hosten says, and they’re conscious of making sure their art is at once a form of their own self-expression and a representation of the neighborhood.

“We’re not gonna solve all the issues on 125th Street, but art plays a role,” said Hosten. “It establishes a sense of pride and it also makes you happy when you’re walking down the street. Instead of a big green wall there’s a bright yellow sun and rays. I also think providing opportunities for artists uptown, especially artists of color, is incredibly important.”

Lola Lovenotes of the Bronx painted an Afro-Latina woman on a panel at the corner of 124th Street. “The neighborhood is mostly black, so I want to connect with the hood if I’m going to paint it,” she said. “I want to incorporate African artwork and Taino symbolism. I love occult symbols and the mystical world, so I’m including some African symbols that promote strength and protection. It’s an underprivileged neighborhood so it’s good to have uplifting images.”

On 125th, the art duo Lost Breed Culture painted a Louis Armstrong mural. “We really appreciate the connection between art and music,” said Fausto Manuel Ramos of Lost Breed. “Painting Armstrong is a nice way to pay homage to the music that was so important here in Harlem.”

“Painting amongst the public is a good day to begin with because you get to interact,” said Murjani Holmes, who painted a colorful art deco-style woman. “You hear the people say, ‘Thank you so much, you’re doing so well.’ I’m loving it, too. It’s not raining, it’s a beautiful day.”

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