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Artsy Arches to be Installed Above Grand Concourse Underpass

By Patrick Wall | August 23, 2012 7:00am

GRAND CONCOURSE — The gray slabs of concrete that line the entrances to the 161st Street underpass below the Grand Concourse will be sheathed in steel and illuminated with colored lights as part of an art installation a decade in the making.

The entryway installations, whose designs were created by artist Alison Sky and selected by a Cultural Affairs Department panel in 2002, will be affixed to the 60-foot-high bridge above the underpass, which the Department of Transportation recently rebuilt.

The project is expected to be completed by next year.

“Someone could say it’s just an underpass for traffic, but to me it's a gateway to the Grand Concourse,” said Sky, a noted public artist.

“I wanted to return the grand identity to the Grand Concourse.”

Sheets and ribbons of stainless steel, with a slight shimmer to reflect sunlight and the traffic below, will be mounted over the east and west entrances to the underpass. The western side will be backlit with blue LED lights, while the eastern arches will be outlined with green lights.

Curved elements are meant to evoke the original arched entryways to the underpass, which were built in 1920 then replaced with rectangular slabs between 2006 and 2008 when the bridge was replaced.  

Pieces of perforated metal will extend over the entryways to the street above, eliminating the need for the chain-link fences added along the bridge during reconstruction.

Sam Goodman, an urban planner in the Bronx borough president’s office, was a member of the panel that chose Sky’s design when plans were first hatched to rehab parts of the Grand Concourse.

Goodman said that while most of artists imagined new lighting and other designs for the underpass tunnel, Sky chose to focus on the entryways.

“This one stood out in my mind, to this day, because it was something that everyone passing by in the neighborhood would see,” said Goodman, 59, who has worked for three successive borough presidents.

The underpass runs through the civic heart of The Bronx, which includes the historic Bronx County Building and the new Bronx Hall of Justice. Its western entrance, where a flower garden was recently planted, faces the 161st St. subway station — the borough’s busiest — and sits two blocks from Yankee Stadium.

The bridge replacement completed in 2008 was part of a $52 million overhaul by the transportation department of a stretch of Grand Concourse between 161st and 166th streets, which included the addition of Lou Gehrig Plaza and planters along the Concourse.

The underpass installation falls under the Cultural Affairs Department’s Percent for Art program, which reserves one percent of the capital budget on certain public construction projects for artwork.

Sky, who spent several childhood years in The Bronx, began making public art in the late 1960s and has since designed site-specific projects throughout the US and Europe. The Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art have both purchased her work.

She said that from the time she first envisioned the installation more than decade ago to now, the Concourse went from “rundown and degraded” to revitalized.

All the while, she said, her vision for the work remained constant, even as one agency after another had to sign off on the project and teams of engineers assessed and reassessed the plans.

“It’s not a life of immediate gratification,” Sky said, “being in the public arts.”