History on the Walls: Discovering East Harlem through its Murals

A walking tour of murals in East Harlem, affectionately known as El Barrio, is a great opportunity to explore the rich culture and history of a this multiethnic neighborhood. Technically considered graffiti, murals can also be banners of honor, inspiration and a canvas  for the love artists share for the place 

On balmy nights in New York City you can stumble on clusters of people on walking tours craning their necks to get close-up views of New York City’s iconic architectural and cultural landmarks. 

Vito Marcantonio Forum members — Gil Fagiani and myself — joined a Walking Tour of murals in East Harlem, affectionately known as El Barrio (just don’t call it SpaHa, a new real estate marketing moniker). 

While we were both acquainted with the legacy of Congressman Vito Marcantonio, the most successful progressive politician in U.S. history (he was elected seven times) who represented the people of East Harlem in the 30s, 40s and 50s, we were less familiar with the cultural workers, some of whom are also activists, who have contributed to the present neighborhood.

Kathleen Benson, formerly with the Museum of the City of New York led the tour that was sponsored by the Historic Districts Council (HDC) on July 15, 2015 focused on wall murals concentrated in a small area – 103rdStreet to 107thStreet and Second Avenue to Park Avenue.

Technically considered graffiti, murals can also be banners of honor, inspiration and a canvas  for the love artists share for the place. You might see aphoristic messages from community-artist de la Vega such as “Become Your Dream,” or words preserving the Young Lords’ legacy, or an to Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietro (who with Miguel Pinero and Miguel Algarin founded the Nuyorican Poets Café).  Murals can also be a call to action such as the Oscar LópezRivera mural demanding his release from imprisonment.

Cited here are just a few of the most iconic murals such as: portraits of “La Reina” Celia Cruz, celebrated Cuban American singer; to poet Julia de Burgos who died in abject poverty. 

At the southeast corner of 104th St. & Lexington Avenueremains one of the largest and rosier murals, “The Spirit of East Harlem.” Created by Hank Prussing, who was a young artist from Maryland who fell in love with El Barrio in the 1970s at a time the city seemed stunned and burning (literally in the Bronx).

With support from Rev. George Calvert, pastor of the Church of the Living Hope on 104th St., Prussing galvanized his talent to create his first mural with donations of supplies from local stores.

Next door to the East Harlem Café on Lexington & 104th St. is a vest pocket park. Its rear walls are covered with murals of Mexican artist and cult figure, Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos created by Jasmine Hernandez and sponsored by Art for Change.

Learning history while walking the streets of New York City is an unbeatable combination especially with strangers who are curious, appreciate the area, or have anecdotes to share. 

East Harlem artists from Luisa’s Liberation Artists Making Action (LLAMA) gave the Don Pedro Albizu Campos – Ernesto “Che” Guevera murala makeover not long ago. There, the group stopped to discuss that the most electorally successful progressive Congressman in the U.S. – Vito Marcantonio – was Puerto Rican nationalist Albizu Campos’ defense lawyer and was Puerto Rico’s defacto Congressional Representative during his seven terms in office. At the mural linking the Puerto Rican and Cuban flags, their historic commonalities became evident: independence movements peopled with “machateros” or sugar cane plantation workers.

Activist, author, and founder of East Harlem Preservation, Marina Ortiz videotaped the walk while often noting current events.  At the Julia de Burgos mural, Ortiz said “the artwork becomes a culture space” on the poet’s birthday when poetry is recited, flowers are placed, and candles are lit. 

An artist collective refreshes the mural of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera whose 34-year imprisonment meets with demands for release by Nobel Peace Prize winners, business leaders, an international coalition of human rights activists; a protest on May 30thattracted more than 5,000 demonstrators starting in Harlem and flowing into El Barrio. Ortiz cited the group she participates in – “34 Women for Oscar.” 

Led by New York author, Kathleen Benson, formerly with the City of New York Museum, the tour was part of the HDC’s Six to Celebrate campaign. Now in its fourth year, the six are chosen from applications submitted by community organizations on the basis of architectural and historic merit, the level of endangerment and willingness of locals to participate.

Besides the remarkable murals, what is so impressive is the dedication of artists such as hip-hop visual artist Manny Vega, James de la Vega, who donate their skills, often returning to revitalize fading murals; and the support community groups and activists provide express their devotion to the legendary East Harlem. 

During the walking tour, a young participant who is a public school teacher confided that even though she is now working in a different borough, she taught her first classes in East Harlem: “I feel a great deal of affection for this neighborhood and I return often, I can’t explain it but it tugs at my heart.”

Winding down near Metropolis Studios, East Harlem has been home to a diverse array of immigrants from Italians, Puerto Ricans, Afro-Americans, Germans, to Irish, and now to a pan-Latin swathe of Mexicans. The tour concluded at the MetroNorth viaduct, built in the 1840s by Irish immigrants for the final mural of this set, “The Graffiti Hall of Fame” at Jackie Robinson Educational Complex on 106th St.


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