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'Surf's Up' Bus Shelter Artist Heartbroken by Possible Demolition

By Katie Honan | March 6, 2015 7:38am
 Esther Grillo, 61, spent six years turning downtrodden bus shelters into memorable pieces of art. 
Artist Who Restored Rockaway Bus Shelters Heartbroken By Possible Demo
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ROCKAWAY PARK — An artist who spent years renovating four historic bus shelters along Rockaway Beach said plans to knock one down to build a park are "heartbreaking."

Esther Grillo, an artist and retired public school teacher, began her project to restore the bus shelters in 1997.

Back then they were falling apart, painted in a tar that made them resemble "black holes," she said. 

She was drawn to the blank canvas and wanted to give back to the community she moved to with her husband, John, a photographer, in 1990. 

"Everyone knows them, and it was one of the reasons why I took them on to save them," she said.

As a sculptor, she was attracted to the "gorgeous, monumental structures" that were built for the 1939 World's Fair. 

But last week, the Parks Department said they were considering knocking down the "Surf's Up" bus shelter on Beach 107th Street in order to accommodate a new park, sparking outrage from residents who consider the structure iconic.

The Sandpiper playground will be adjacent to the shelter and officials said they are exploring the possibility of tearing it down to fit the park and a protective dune. 

"It's heartbreaking," Grillo, 61, said. 

She began working on the four structures in 1997, securing grants from the City Parks Foundation and funding from the Rockaway Artists Alliance, civic groups and private donations.

Each shelter took months of daily work, she said, and she involved the community with a mural apprenticeship program that attracted dozens of volunteers, many of them children. 

"Surf's Up," the shelter on Beach 107th Street that may face the wrecking ball, took three months and 70 volunteers and was unveiled in 1999. 

She sought to capture the neighborhood's surfers, painting nine — men, women and surfers of all ethnicities — riding blue and white waves painted on the 65-foot mural.

"It sparkled," Grillo said. 

Many of the surfers were inspired by real people, including Thomas Intrabartola, a local Parks Department employee and surfer who died in 1998.

She painted him riding the crest of a wave as a way for the community to honor and remember him.

Through the years she has continued to touch-up the shelters every other year, but hadn't done maintenance work on them since Hurricane Sandy hit the peninsula in 2012.

The storm's damage stretched the length of the peninsula, destroying most of the boardwalk and trampling parks and playgrounds. 

But the bus shelters were still standing, which locals say is reason enough to "save the wave."

"Unless they're doing something really phenomenal that makes up for destroying a structure that is iconic, I don't see the need to destroy it," she said. 

The shelters are part of people's lives and histories, she added.

"People have stories that are part of their lives. Their first kiss, their shelter from the storms," Grillo said, admitting that while the bus shelter isn't the most important issue faced by the peninsula's residents since the hurricane, it still has value.

"If one doesn't try to save the little things, the little things add up to many things that we're losing," she said.