Residents of Washington Heights are up in arms after New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) painted over the murals and graffiti that decorated the 191st Street Subway tunnel in an attempt to tidy up the pedestrian throughway, ABC7 reported Monday.
Members of the community and their city representative had complained about the condition of the tunnel, which is poorly lit and attracts more than its share of drug users and unhoused people looking for shelter. However, the artwork that lined the tunnel was a source of pride for the neighborhood.
“What happened here is just a slap in the face to the community,” Washington Heights resident Luiggy Gomez told Gothamist. “They erased history.”
The murals were part of a 2015 DOT-sponsored beautification project that saw five local artists decorate the 1000-foot-long tunnel with geometric shapes, luxuriant jungle scenes and affirmations, including a work by New York graffiti legend Fernando “Cope2” Carlo Jr.’s Art Is Life, which encouraged pedestrians to “Follow Your Dreams”.
While the original murals were quickly covered with contributions from local graffiti artists, the tunnel and the art that decorated it quickly became a cultural landmark and was featured in Lin Manuel Miranda’s film In The Heights.
Nira E. Leyva-Gutiérrez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, which co-sponsored the 2015 project with the DOT, issued a joint statement with New York City Council member Carmen De La Rosa decrying the DOT’s lack of transparency and community engagement during the renovation project.
The DOT quickly responded with a statement of their own, assuring the community that they “value the importance of public art” and will soon issue a Request for Proposals “that will engage local artists, jump-starting a process that will allow us to transform the 191st St tunnel.”
In addition to the DOT’s planned “transformation” of the tunnel, DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez told New York’s NBC4 that the city has “allocated $25 million that we’ll be investing in the infrastructure of this tunnel in the next two years.”