NEW YORK – The mural on the side of the building is no longer so vibrant. Its oranges, rust-reds and heavenly blues have dimmed and splotches of dead gray stucco show through where images have been rubbed out, as if someone took an enormous eraser to the wall.
Finished in 1972 by renowned artist Arnold Belkin, the mural was created at a Manhattan playground in his trademark Mexican-influenced style but has been deteriorating slowly over the decades. There has been little impetus to preserve it until now.
Residents are clamoring to have what may be the artist's only outdoor U.S. work restored.
At their request, Heritage Preservation, a Washington D.C.-based national organization devoted to preserving the country's cultural artifacts, organized a team last week, to assess whether the 50- by 60-foot work, titled "Against Domestic Colonialism," can be repaired.
The prognosis for the mural was good, said Kristen Laise, of Heritage Preservation, but it could cost at least $70,000. The money would have to be raised from public and private donors.
It would not be the first time the organization has restored a mural in New York City: In 2009, it completed repairs to Eva Cockroft's 1986 work "Homage to Seurat: La Grande Jatte in Harlem" with money from a preservation foundation.
Heritage Preservation lists about a dozen equally noteworthy community murals around the country that it considers "highly endangered" because of development, deterioration and neglect. Among them are the 1972 "Under City Stone," one of the first community murals painted by a woman, Caryl Yasko, on Chicago's South Side; and "Song of Unity," a 1978 mural created by a group of artists in Berkeley, Calif.
But no one knows how many public murals are in danger of disappearing. That's because no national survey exists of the current state of the country's public murals, Laise said.
Scholars argue that the murals are important historical snapshots of the demands and frustrations of urban communities.
"They really are a window into what was going on at a neighborhood at a certain point in time," said Jane Weissman, co-author of "On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City."
The works can also contribute to urban economies. In Philadelphia, where more than 1,500 murals decorate the urban landscape, the Mural Arts Program has created tours and employs hundreds of artists in projects it says generates $2.2 million annually for the local economy.
"So much of what we do is about economic development," said Jane Golden, who has led the program since it was created as an anti-graffiti initiative in 1984.
Several other cities also have instituted mural arts programs, including Los Angeles and Chicago.
Unlike commissioned murals, community murals are typically begun as a collaboration between the community and an artist. Themes reflect cultural or ethnic pride or local anxieties. These are often evoked in their titles, such as Lynn Murray's 1973 mural in Manhattan called "Impact of Federal Budget Cuts on Housing" or the mid-1990s "Parents Against Police Brutality/R.I.P.," by TATS Cru in the Bronx.
But the murals' very nature exposes them to harm from weather, development and neglect. And all are, to some extent, at the mercy of the owner of the building where the murals grace walls.
Belkin's mural was painted on the cheap brick of the exposed wall of a building on the west side of Manhattan in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.
Once the stomping ground of the violent Irish American mob "The Westies," a battlefield of street gangs and a haven for drug dealers and addicts, even comic book readers would recognize it as the rough-and-tumble home turf of the blind superhero Daredevil.
But in the past decade or so, the neighborhood has become something of a gentrified playground for Broadway show-goers, tourists and new urban bohemians.
The playground where the mural was painted, May Mathews/Alexandra Palmer Park, is sandwiched between brick buildings between Ninth and Tenth avenues, with entrances on 45th and 46th streets. It has contributed its own lore to the neighborhood's turbulent reputation. It became notorious as the setting for fatal stabbings in 1959 of two white teenagers by a Puerto Rican teenager wearing a cloak — the "Cape Man."
The playground was still rough by the early 1970s when the community sought to rehabilitate it. A community mural organization, CityArts, Inc., helped to find an artist to create a work on one of the neighboring building's walls.
Architect Michael J. Altschuler recalled being surprised that Belkin, by then an established artist in New York, would be willing to create a mural in the little playground for little money.
Born in Canada, Belkin worked in Mexico for years, where he studied with David Siqueiros, one of the three most influential artists of the Mexican muralist movement that include Jose Orozco and Diego Rivera. Belkin died in 1992.
Altschuler said the idea for "Against Domestic Colonialism" came from direct, albeit informal, discussions with the community. Split into three separate scenes framed by circles, in the first is a bulldozer against a backdrop of skyscrapers depicting the threat of development; in the other two circles are images of multiracial groups of people looking forward. They hold up flowers, a city block with trees and signs.
"We the people demand control of our communities," reads a sign held up by one woman.
The Heritage Preservation team includes Belkin's widow, a building scientist and an art conservator. For several hours on Tuesday they gathered on the playground's basketball courts with a mechanized lift they used to take them up to inspect the artwork closely.
By mid-day, they had determined that the stucco on which the mural was painted was separating from the old brick like dead skin, probably separating from rainwater behind it. The building's owners had also made some questionable efforts to repair the wall, only to cover up chunks of the top half of the painting. Still, the team was convinced the mural could be preserved.
It was the first time that Belkin's widow, Patricia Quijano Ferrer, had seen the work in person. "The restoration is going to require a lot of resources," she said in Spanish. "It almost has to be completely recreated."
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