On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City

03/04/2009 12:00 AM |

University Press of Mississippi • Available now

Pablo Neruda called murals “the people’s blackboard.” Mural-maker and artist Janet Braun-Reinitz and writer/publicist/painter Jane Weissman call them “a window into the unwritten history of a neighborhood.”
Since the public art movement began to take shape in the late 1960s, more than 500 murals — some commissioned and others not — have cropped up on walls throughout the five boroughs. Several themes have recurred regardless of era: the struggle against racism; the need for better public schools, improved access to health care and an end to police brutality; support for decent, affordable housing. Braun-Reinitz and Weissman call them “murals of opposition” because they take issue with the status quo and demand rectification of problems. Still, they are quick to add that not every mural is politically charged: some celebrate local history, ethnic pride, or favorite pastimes, from music to baseball, while others memorialize the dead. Still others are simply decorative, with vibrant flowers, evocative street scenes or, in one case, an enormous praying mantis hovering above a giant tomato.

The authors highlight the fact that murals are a temporary art form beholden to the vagaries of weather and real estate, and say it is no coincidence that most are located in low-income or gentrifying areas. What’s more, On The Wall documents several incidents that showcase the conflict between long-time residents and more affluent newcomers. In one particularly nasty clash, yuppies, afraid that an anti-redlining mural would diminish Park Slope property values, battled both the artists who created the work and the owner of the wall. After months of haggling, the property’s managing agent gave in and withdrew permission to use the site. Shortly thereafter, unknown “vandals” whitewashed the painting, destroying it.

Indeed, many of the murals referenced in On The Wall no longer exist, but thanks to more than 150 photos, a vital bit of city lore has been preserved. The end result is a spirited look at multi-story public blackboards — and the grassroots sentiments they honor.