By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—Tourists from all around the world are delivered to Harlem by tour bus to see the murals on the corrugated steel security gates of the storefronts along 125th Street painted by Franco Gaskin, better known as "Franco the Great."
Gaskin began painting them as a way to beautify the area in the years after shop owners along Harlem's main thoroughfare put up the metal barriers following the riots that occured after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"When the gates came down, Harlem looked like a prison camp," Gaskin, now 83, said while standing next to one of his murals at the old Victoria Theater. "People told me I was wasting my time and that I should be using my talents downtown. My response was that Harlem needs some beauty."
Now, the roughly 25 murals that Gaskin has painted along the street when Harlem was still spoken of as a place to be avoided are a tourist attraction.
Every Sunday morning, Gaskin can be found across from the Apollo Theater on 125th Street with tourists from Japan, Brazil and Italy selling wares related to the now-famous murals. The acrylic and oil murals have also earned him invitations to work in Africa, Europe and Japan, Gaskin said.
But a 2008 rezoning of 125th Street calls for any new security gates installed after the zoning changes were approved to be the more modern see-through type where 75 percent of the area covered by the gate is visible.
That has Gaskin worried that the murals, usually positive messages, images of black leaders such as Malcolm X or King, or both, will be slowly lost as the security gates are replaced due to normal wear and tear.
"I would like the gates to stay as long as possible but I cannot stop progress," Gaskin said. "If they have to change the gates at least make sure the are placed somewhere the public can see them because they are a part of Harlem's history."
Gaskin has already gathered some community support. Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem where the murals are located, is expected to vote Wednesday night on a resolution urging for the murals to be preserved.
"These gates have beautiful murals that everyone comes to have their photos taken in front of," said Community Board 10 District Manager Paimaan Lodhi. "The discussion is about storing the murals somewhere if we have to."
The board is looking for community partners to help in the effort and so far has enlisted the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
"Harlem Community Development Corporation joins the community in supporting the repurposing of Franco the Great’s iconic artwork within the neighborhood," a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement. "HCDC is taking part in the larger conversation with its partners throughout the city and local community on this initiative."
When the gates were installed, the idea was to barricade the store from the outside but law enforcement thinking has since changed. Gates that prevent the public from seeing what's happening inside the store may actually allow burglars— who enter from the roof, for example— to remain undetected.
"People were breaking into the stores on a regular basis back then. Franco was able to create a cultural feature and business opportunity," said Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District.
"But it came out during the rezoning process that the see-through gates were safer. It's also about the physical look of the street and the pedestrian experience. This is not about the removal of Franco's art," Askins added.
The rezoning allows tall office towers and thousands of condominiums on 125th Street while also adding incentives for entertainment-related businesses. The zoning changes were supported by all three Harlem City Council representatives. However, it was hotly contested by some members of the community who feared the change would destroy the character of a neighborhood that is considered to be at the center of African-American culture.
Ever since the rezoning, Gaskin said he's been hearing rumors about the possible removal of the gates. And he has already seen it happen. About two years ago, Gaskin said a mural that he painted near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard was lost after the store underwent construction.
The mural painted on the destroyed gate was a depiction of King. The slain civil rights leader is shedding a tear. "Remember....I had a dream. It's for YOU to finish it," read the inscription.
Gaskin described the piece as one of his favorites because of the inspiring message.
"They threw the gate away during the construction," Gaskin said. "To them it was just another piece of metal."