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Yorkville: Behind the Mural on 83rd Street

Is large-scale art expected to speak for a neighborhood or community?

York Avenue–named after US Army Sergeant Alvin York for honorable actions in World War II and grounding the neighborhood in its German roots–has rapidly gentrified in the recent decades. Yorkville, or the Upper East Side, continues to shift and evolve; it’s structures, residents, and community look different today than it has in the past. When a neighborhood changes, is its history threatened? How much should developers consider a neighborhood’s past when contributing to its future?

In the early 2000’s, a 28-story condo building was being developed on 83rd and York. The new building’s lobby faces a 6-story tenement on the opposite corner and at the time, that building was covered in graffiti. Fielding complaints from soon-to-be residents, the developer made a deal with the tenement building’s owner to hire artist Richard Haas to replace the graffiti with a mural. The project cost more than $200,000 and was completed in 2005.

The image Haas created integrates all the attributes of the building–you’ll find that the fire escapes, windows, and doorways are part of the art–and has become a staple of Yorkville’s landscape in the recent decade. A listing for an apartment in the Cielo, the new condominium building, states: “The Cielo offers high ceilings and a Richard Haas photorealistic mural across the street as a nostalgic reminder of the Germanic history of the Yorkville neighborhood.”

At the top of the mural is a painted glockenspiel, and below the clock are two NYC police officers mounted on horses, once facing forward and on backward. There are detailed gargoyles at the street level; painted, of course, but adding a new aesthetic and detail to the facade of what is otherwise a simple tenement building. Look between the gargoyles: you’ll find life-like painted windows exposing a sewing machine, a mannequin, and a rack full of clothes on hangers, referencing the real-life dry cleaner below it.

There is a very limited information available about this mural. Thousands of people see it every day, and we can safely assume they seldom have context. As a passerby without information, what would this piece communicate to you? Does it match the initial intention?

How does the somewhat absurd subject matter of this mural add, expose, or call into question about the neighborhood and its story? If there is a walking tour of Yorkville in 20 years, do you think this mural will be a part of the story told? 50 years? 100 years? Do you think it will still exist? Do you think it will tell a different story?

Check out Richard Haas’s mural (and other work) on his website: