By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — East Harlem motorists could be driving through an art gallery on 125th Street under a plan to save storefront security gates painted by artist "Franco the Great."
The Harlem Community Development Corporation is working on a plan to rescue 25 murals that Franco Gaskin painted on the now-banned corrugated steel security barriers along 125th Street and place them inside frames hung between First and Second avenues, creating an outdoor gallery.
"It would become a great tourist attraction. Now there are ramps, grass and trees and nothing to look at," said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation. "It extends the cultural corridor of 125th Street to the East side and adds another area of activity with the future extension of Harlem River Park.
Gaskin, 83, began painting over the gates because he said they made Harlem look like a "prison camp." Store owners installed the gates after the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
A 2008 rezoning of 125th Street calls for any new security gates installed in the area to be the more modern see-through type where 75 percent of the area covered by the gate is visible.
Law enforcement officials have supported the ban on concealed gates, saying gates that completely block the inside of the store from view may actually hamper security by concealing potential crimes.
Gaskin fears the changes could mean that any gate on which he's painted a mural could eventually be lost. And he's been fighting to preserve the murals, gaining support from Community Boards 10 and 11 in Central and East Harlem, which have issued resolutions of support of his plan.
Lunke said the project is a long-term one. The advocates have been trying to track down who maintains the land on 125th Street between First and Second avenues. An early estimate is that it would cost $250,000 to frame the murals.
Gaskin would like to see the gates remain on the stores as long as possible, and then be relocated to 125th Street between First and Second avenues as they are replaced by the new see-through gates.
With the overall revitalization of the area, including the planned completion of Harlem River Park along the Harlem River between 125th and 145th streets and a possible memorial for the African Burial Ground at First Avenue near 126th Street, the area could go desolate to thriving, said Lunke.
"This could create a nice destination spot," Lunke said.