HARLEM — Relics from a grittier Harlem era will be preserved by a symbol of gentrification — a mall.
The murals painted on metal security gates by Franco Gaskin, also known as "Franco the Great," are being stored at the East River Plaza where developer Forest City Ratner is hoping to display them someday soon, according to the artist and the development company.
“We are working closely with the artist on a plan to display the murals publicly,” said Elizabeth Canela, project manager for Forest City.
Gaskin, 84, started painting the gates in 1979 when Harlem was much less trendy than it is today.
In 2013, the developer paid to have three gates removed and stored in the East River Plaza.
In total, 27 gates have been saved by Gaskin and his team. They should be displayed sometime in 2015, Gaskin added.
“This is part of Harlem history,” Dana Harper, who was a rookie police officer in the early 1980s when he first met the artist, said. “We have to remember all of the things that made Harlem what it is. Small's Paradise, all of these legendary spots in the movies all those things are gone. Franco is one of the last pieces of history of Harlem that actually tells a story.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, 125th Street would look as bleak as a prison when the stores shut their security gates on Sunday, the artist said. He wanted to brighten the neighborhood with his art.
“Everybody would say, ‘Why are you doing this? Somebody is just going to paint graffiti over it,’” Gaskin said. “But I was positive and I kept painting. None of the gates have been painted over.”
Eventually packs of tourists would stop by with cameras and other merchants began to flock to 125th Street. At his peak there were close to 200 gates in his “gallery.”
Whenever new businesses move into 125th Street, they would throw out Gaskin’s gates. A 2008 rezoning required new shops to have see-through metal gates instead of the solid ones he painted.
“I understand the nature of progress,” said Gaskin. “I can’t stop progress. I know that not everything lasts forever even though I would like to see some things last forever. I understand they need to go.”
The gate he misses the most is a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. that he painted on the same building he was almost assassinated in back in 1958.
Gaskin, who arrived to New York from his native Panama shortly after the assassination attempt, had never heard of the Civil Rights leader before.
“I was surprised because I had never seen a black man’s face on the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “I thought he must be really special.”
For Gaskin, who continues to paint despite his arthritic hands, preserving the gates is a large victory. But the bigger fight is to preserve the memory of Franco the Great.
Every Sunday morning he sets up a table with prints of his artwork to sell to tourists who visit from around the world. Franco has been commissioned to paint in Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. His biggest fan base is in Japan where he has traveled to more than 20 times, he said.
“After the gates are gone I still have to exist,” he said. “I only hope that when I can no longer paint all of the things I did for Harlem will be remembered.”