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Dinosaur BBQ to Preserve Mural for Slain Gowanus Man

GOWANUS — With new luxury apartment buildings and trendy restaurants sprouting daily in Gowanus, the neighborhood's past is disappearing fast.

But one newcomer, the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, is committed to preserving a treasured piece of Gowanus history.

The barbecue joint set to open in May on Union Street is repainting a multi-colored mural created nearly 20 years ago as a memorial to Raul Vasquez Jr., a local man who was shot to death in 1995.

Vasquez died on Union Street between Third and Fourth avenues, and the block was renamed Raul Vasquez Place by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2000.

A local artist painted the mural on the outside of 604 Union St., the brick building where the 21-year-old died after he was shot twice, said his cousin Annette Rosario, who works at Union Cafe down the block.

The memorial painting consisted of a white cross draped with a banner marked "Raul" set in a sunset-colored field of oranges and pinks. The cross was encircled by the words "In Loving Memory," with a red heart standing in for the letter "O" in memory.

The mural was a spot where Vasquez's mother and other loved ones could mourn and pray for him, Rosario said. Relatives would leave flowers there on his birthday, on Christmas and to mark other holidays.

In the nearly two decades since Vasquez's death, the neighborhood has changed dramatically. Across the street from where Vasquez was shot there are plans for a boutique hotel, and the hip Royal Palms Shuffleboard club is set to open this year on the next block.

But not only is the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a restaurant chain that originated in Syracuse, N.Y., recreating the mural outside — it will also feature local art inside, including a rotating mobile made of glass from whiskey bottles that a Gowanus artist collected from beneath underpasses.

When construction crews arrived to renovate the former tool-and-die shop, neighbors immediately started peppering them with questions about the fate of the mural, said Jay Williams, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's vice president of development, who is overseeing the project.

Their fears were quelled after Dinosaur employees posted a sign on the building with large letters: "Future area of Raul memorial." Within 45 minutes, a woman appeared to put a pin with a photo of Vasquez on the sign.

"It's important to the neighborhood," Williams said. "A number of people have walked by to say thanks."

John Stage, Dinosaur's owner, had noticed the mural early on, and before leasing the building, he tracked down Vasquez's mother, who still works at a nearby plumbing business.

With her blessing, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que arranged for an artist to paint a new version of the memorial mural on a different section of the building. The original mural had to be removed to make way for a window.

"I just knew we had to do something to preserve it," Stage said. "I saw his name on the [mural], and I knew there was something special about this kid."

Vasquez was a popular young man who could often be seen playing basketball with younger kids at a hoop attached to the outside of 604 Union St. Like his mother, he worked at a nearby plumbing business.

The exact circumstances around his shooting death July 31, 1995 remain a mystery. A 2000 Daily News story said Vasquez was shot by a stray bullet. His killer was never found and the shooting is now a cold case, Rosario said.

In the 1990s, the block was filled with close-knit families who liked to grill on the sidewalk and throw block parties, said Rosario, who lived there then. "We all knew each other. We were all together, united as one," Rosario said.

Now most of the families that lived on the block in the 1990s have moved away, but they still come back — some from as far away as Virginia — to gather at the mural on the anniversary of Vasquez's death, Rosario said.

"We're just happy to know Dinosaur Bar-B-Que didn't take it away from us," Rosario said. "It's something that was important to our family."