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East Harlem Resident Captures the History of El Barrio Through Its Murals

By Gustavo Solis | October 8, 2014 1:53pm
  “I wanted to show our culture, our history, our creativity, out politics and to showcase a lot of pieces that no longer exist in some cases,” said Marina Ortiz, who spent the last ten years photographing murals around East Harlem.
Murals of East Harlem
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EAST HARLEM — The history of El Barrio is painted on its walls.

Murals in the neighborhood chronicle everything from the community’s support for 2005 mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, ‘A Mayor That Really Speaks Spanish,’ or the relationships between the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities.

And for the last decade Marina Ortiz has recorded those stories in photographs.

“I wanted to show our culture, our history, our creativity, out politics and to showcase a lot of pieces that no longer exist in some cases,” she said.

They also show the people who actually live in the neighborhood. The children playing ball and old people playing dominoes on The Spirit of East Harlem on East 104th Street are actual residents of that block, Ortiz said.

Ortiz is showing close to 100 photographs of murals at the East Harlem Cafe until Oct. 17. She started photographing them in 2004. Over the years she has seen many of the murals disappear.

The photographer wants to get people interested in preservation and funding public art before it disappears, she said.

On East 116th Street by the FDR, a 9/11 mural was destroyed to make way for the East River Plaza parking lot. On the same street, by Madison Avenue, a pro-affordable housing piece that hung on an abandoned building was demolished. That building is now becoming a luxury condo, she said.

It’s not just the murals done by volunteers or independent artists. One of the murals of last year’s “Los Muros Hablan,” project, which was spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, was painted over just six months after it went up, Ortiz said.

“Without the murals we’d lose what makes El Barrio, El Barrio,” she said. “Our buildings have historically served as a canvas. It’s our lifeblood, it’s how we tell our history.”

The murals are important, not just because they tell a story, Ortiz said, but they also turn bare walls into community spaces.

Locals flock to a mural of Julia de Burgos on East 106th Street on her birthday every year. It becomes a meeting space for people to read her poetry and honor her memory, Ortiz said.

Apart from photographing the murals, Ortiz has also worked to restore two of them. She helped work on The Spirit of East Harlem when it was vandalized in 2007 and in 2011, she organized a restoration project for the Dos Alas mural on East 105th Street.

Work on Dos Alas cost about $500 for paint. Volunteers did most of the work, she said.

With property owners able to paint over the murals whenever they want, restoration is something that needs to be done more, she added.

When a mural is gone, it erases not just the work but the sense of pride people in the community have, said Tsipi Ben-Haim, the executive director of CITYarts. The non-profit art and education organization has art installations all over town, including the sundial on East Harlem’s Lexington Academy.

“The mural becomes a continual reminder to them because they did something so special,” she said. “When they walk by the murals and they see what they’ve done they stand up straight and walk with pride.”

CITYarts set funding aside for restoration projects in order to keep their murals on the walls. They are currently restoring a mosaic at Jacob H. Schiff park on West 138th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

If the murals are destroyed, they lose their transformative influence, she added.