On Monday morning, a historic mural created by Lower East Side Jewish teenagers 43 years ago was summarily whitewashed by a real estate developer. Art lovers and preservationists in the neighborhood are horrified.
Neighborhood blog The Lo-Down, which broke the story, reported last week that the Ascend Group had purchased three adjacent parcels of land on East Broadway. The middle parcel is the Bialystoker building, an official New York City landmark. Constructed in 1929 by immigrants from Bialystok, the wedding-cake-like art deco building—adorned with medallions depicting the 12 tribes of Israel—is a former nursing home and community center that was shuttered in 2011; thanks to the efforts of local activists, it was granted landmark status in 2013. The Bialystoker is protected from destruction. But the park on one side and the office building on the other are slated for demolition, to be replaced by two vast residential buildings that will sandwich the Bialystocker.
The mural at 232 East Broadway was on the office building side. Called “Our Strength Is Our Heritage, Our Heritage Is Our Life,” it depicted central events from Jewish and Lower East Side history. Back in 1972, CityArts, a longtime public art organization that pairs professional artists and New York City students to create mosaics and murals around the city, approached the Lower East Side youth organization Young Israel about creating a Jewish mural. CityArts invited the Young Israel teens to collaborate; the students researched, debated what to include, then designed and painted the mural. The left side depicted Lower East Side history: Ellis Island immigration, the dawn of the labor movement, the early importance of The Forward newspaper. The middle section was devoted to religion: a rebbe praying, a woman lighting Shabbat candles, a menorah. There was also modern world history: A fire representing the Holocaust, a flag and map of the modern state of Israel, the massacre of Jewish Olympians at Munich. The far right side of the mural depicted the faces of the teens themselves and their families.
All this disappeared in a day, unannounced, under a coat of white paint.
Sara Krivisky, one of the teenagers (she was on the lower right side of the mural, wearing a Star of David necklace) is heartbroken. “I grew up on the Lower East Side,” she said in an interview. “I live in Florida now, but that mural is part of my family history—that’s my face, my parents’ faces, up there. My parents were Holocaust survivors who came from Poland to the Lower East Side after the war. I just turned 60, and it’s my heart and soul. My kids, the mural has become a part of them. My son moved to New York, and he used to send me pictures of his friends and the mural—part of his own personal walking tour. My daughter took a picture of me pointing to my own face on the mural and captioned it, ‘That’s my mama!’ My youngest son heard that it was destroyed and called to make sure I was OK.”
Michelle Rosenberg, a young architect who could see the mural from her apartment window, was devastated too. “It was a very rich mural, filled with lots of pieces of history,” she said. “You could spend 30 minutes looking at it and identifying the different events and people depicted. Sure it was old and peeling, but so are we all. Watching it get whitewashed made me panic. It was an intentional act of disrespect, a reminder that the goal of gentrification is to destroy communities. And of course it’s impossible not to read the erasing of a Jewish symbol as an act of anti-Semitism. Especially one that has Holocaust survivors depicted. Eek.”
The developer, Rob Kaliner of the Ascend Group, told the New York Post, “The building is going to be demolished anyway, and I wanted to make sure for the safety of residents and the people walking around there that it was taken care of without pieces falling off. We really apologize to anyone who was upset about it, but we wanted to make sure we kept the area safe, and that’s what we accomplished. I would feel terrible if anyone was to get hurt because of the site conditions.”
Rosenberg and Krivisky both scoffed at this explanation. “There was no functional reason to remove it, considering that the building will be demolished anyway,” Rosenberg said. Krivisky added, “I’d love for it to be replicated elsewhere in the neighborhood. For years I tried to get CityArts to touch up the mural; they didn’t have the money. But the money is there in that area now. There are so many developers, and there are street artists doing amazing projects. The neighborhood is changing. But I think there is still hope to bring back the history on some level.”
Krivisky sighed. “The Lower East Side was a wonderful place to grow up. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’d love to recreate the mural, bring back the people who are on the wall, have them bring their kids, have a big community event—everyone, the old and the new.”
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.