Upper West Siders Tread on Conservatives
UPPER WEST SIDE — Even the pavement is political in one of Manhattan's most opinionated neighborhoods.
An Upper West Sider recently commissioned sidewalk portraits of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other conservative public figures who he says stand "for freedom, liberty and choice."
Michael Schrage, who teaches business innovation at M.I.T. and blogs for Harvard Business Review, said he paid artist Hani Shihada to create the bold and colorful works on Broadway sidewalks because he wanted to put the spotlight on thinkers "who represent values and ideas I care about."
Schrage, 50, a one-time Washington Post technology reporter, describes his politics as "right of center, more libertarian than paleo." In addition to Thatcher's likeness on Broadway near West 106th Street, Schrage had Shihada use his artistic talents to render Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek near West 112th Street, and American economist and columnist Thomas Sowell at West 115th Street.
Shihada described the trio as "conservative icons" in a Twitter post, but Schrage says he doesn't like the term "conservative," preferring to call them "the original liberals."
Shihada, who's been doing sidewalk art for more than 25 years, is known in the neighborhood for sidewalk portraits of President Barack Obama, the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, none of which were commissioned.
Schrage said he wanted to inject "diversity" into Shihada's left-leaning lineup, but he insisted that he wasn't making a political statement.
"I thought it would be great fun and a wonderful way to reinforce the Upper West Side 'brand' as a place where real intellectuals with real ideas can be debated and discussed," Schrage said in an email.
"It's the idea of a friendly rivalry, not standing in opposition. If I wanted to [upset] people I would have asked for [Newt] Gingrich or [Mitt] Romney," he added over the phone.
Shihada, 51, who was paid about $1,000 per portrait, said he accepted Schrage's commission because he liked the concept of promoting "ideas," rather than commercial ventures. Shihada has created artwork for a long list of corporate clients, including MTV, Target and Tanqueray.
"I like to do different things," said Shihada, a Palestinian who came to the United States from Spain when he was 26. "The idea is to make people think and question and wonder why. I'm an artist — I'm not supposed to be prejudiced toward anybody. I'm understanding. That’s the whole idea."
Regardless, some have been less-than-understanding about Shihada's latest portraits.
A fellow artist accused him of "committing a betrayal" by accepting the commission, and some passers-by were "very angry" to see him working on Thatcher's portrait, Shihada said. He noted, however, that several young girls stopped to ask who Thatcher was, which the artist took as a positive message.
Someone scrawled the words "murderer" and "Ireland is ours" above the Thatcher portrait, and a man who sells books nearby said he'd seen a man let his dog poop on the so-called "Iron Lady," who led Britain from 1979 to 1990 and was a staunch advocate for free markets and national defense.
"I've seen grown men do all kinds of things to this portrait," said Ike, a book dealer who didn't give his last name.
The other portraits took some verbal bashing from Upper West Siders on Monday.
"It's defacing the sidewalk," said 78-year-old Lou Miller of the Hayek picture.
Hayek, who died in 1992, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. He was known as a rival of John Maynard Keynes who railed against socialism.
"If he [paints] George Bush, I'm coming with a hose," said MIller.
Shihada said the Hayek portrait has garnered the most positive response, with some viewers stopping to thank him for the picture. Schrage said he'd seen some stop and look up Hayek on their iPhones, which is exactly the reaction he was hoping for, he said.
A few blocks north, the portrait of Columbia University-educated economist and columnist Thomas Sowell drew a frown from local resident Paul Chevigny, a law professor at NYU.
"He's a right-wing ideologue, and I presume the artist is too," Chevigny said. "The big money is just taking over politics. It's another example."
Others laughed off the paid political portraits.
"So he made a little money," chuckled 63-year-old Bob Wilson, a freelance musician and longtime admirer of Shihada's work, of the artist's commission. "Let the conservatives pay. They have money."
This isn't the first time Shihada's work has caused a stir on the Upper West Side. Last year one of his pictures was erased from the sidewalk at the request of residents in a nearby apartment building. The artist later received an apology — and about $200 — from the buiding's board president.