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Keith Haring Mural May Be at Risk as Church Moves to Evict Tenants

By  James Fanelli and Ben Fractenberg | August 1, 2016 12:25pm 

 The Grace House, a residential building owned by the Church of the Ascension, is home to a three-floor mural by legendary New York City artist Keith Haring. But the Church has booted tenants due to costs cuts. The tenats fear that a sale of the building would imperil the mural.
Evicted Tenants Fear For Future of Keith Haring Mural
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — In the early 1980s, legendary street artist Keith Haring painted a whimsical mural that snakes through the lobby and the stairwells of a former convent that was then the home of a Catholic youth organization known as Grace House.

Three decades later, the rare work — a series of dancing figures shimmying up two flights of steps — still stands, even though the youth organization has long since closed shop and a nearby parish, the Church of the Ascension, has taken over the five-story building.

The church has used the property at West 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam for the last three years as a rental building offering mostly studio apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

But four months ago, the church informed the building's 16 tenants that they needed to vacate their apartments by Monday, Aug. 1. The church explained in a letter that it was suffering financial difficulties and wanted to explore its options.

The notice left many tenants scrambling to figure out their future — and the mural's.

“It’s a unique structure; it would be a shame to see it turned into soulless condos,” tenant Denis McFarling, 62, said of the mural and building.

Keith HaringDNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

He and other tenants told DNAinfo New York last week that the church has been mum about its plans for the building, but the speculation is that the church will lease or sell it to developers. Multiple tenants have said they have recently seen at least two developers come by to check out the property.

"They know the Harings are here but they don't really care about them," McFarling said of the developers. "They don't really know how unique they are."

The tenants said that considering the layout of the building — there are 14 SRO units and a one-bedroom apartment — they fear any developer will either demolish it or do a gut renovation.

Tenant Robert Savina said he doubts the mural will survive.

"No one seems to know what will happen to it. There seems to have been no provisions made," said Savina, a film production designer who has lived in one of the studios since May 2014, paying $900 a month.

Savina described the tenants at the building — which is still called Grace House — as a tight knit multi-generational community consisting of working artists and students. He said the mural is dear to all of them.

"I fell in love with the community here. And the mural, it’s part of our identities," he said.

Keith Haring

DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

The church's notice to vacate hit many of the tenants hard. The building's rents were some of the most affordable in Morningside Heights, if not the city, and finding a similar deal has proven hard for many.

McFarling, a former illustrator, decided the best solution for him was to head back to Oregon to live with family. Another tenant decided to move in with his girlfriend downtown. One tenant even thought about going to a shelter.

Meanwhile, Savina and another tenant, Yana Sabeva, 30, have chosen to defy the order to leave and take the church to court.

"As far as I’m concerned, I want to stand up for my rights and get justice," said Sabeva, an artist and filmmaker who moved in three years ago and is the tenant who has lived in the building the longest, paying $850 a month.

With the help of the Goddard Riverside Law Project, she and Savina filed a lawsuit against the church last week in Manhattan Supreme Court, accusing it of illegally evicting them.

The lawsuit says that since the building was built in 1928, it is subject to the state's rent stabilization laws, which provides tenants with certain rights and only allows landlords to evict them for certain reasons.

Sabeva, who is originally from Bulgaria, said she was really torn over filing a lawsuit against the church and didn't want to attack its reputation. But in the end, she said she realized the lawsuit was necessary.

"I was literally praying that the right thing would happen. We’re confident right now it is," she said.

The Church of the Ascension did not respond to requests for comment.

Sabeva and other tenants have also been trying to come up with ways to save the Haring mural. She said she has thought about trying to get the city to landmark the building.

Savina has also reached out to his friends in the art community for advice.

And in June 2015 — when there was previous speculation of the property being sold to developers — another tenant contacted the Keith Haring Foundation for help.

The foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to expand and protect the artist's legacy, confirmed to DNAinfo that a tenant had reached out but said that it never heard from the tenant or anyone else since then.

Haring painted the mural one evening around 1983 or 1984 while about 50 kids watched him, according to a New York Times article in 2007. At the time, Grace House was a Catholic Youth Organization, and two of its teen members knew Haring.

The artist visited the house a few times and even deejayed parties there. Eventually, Haring and the two teen members persuaded the Grace House's program director to let him paint there. The mural starts in the lobby with one of Haring's signature images — a radiant baby.

Church of the Ascension took over the building in 2009. It has used the space for choir practice, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a food pantry and classrooms.

Savina said he first saw the building when he was working on a film shoot there. When he learned apartments were available, he rented one immediately.

He moved to New York City in 1985 in the middle of the AIDS crisis and saw many of his friends die from the disease. Haring also died at 31 of AIDS-related complications in 1990. 

"The mural, for me, is a connection to my own personal past," Savina said.

With the Aug. 1 deadline to move, all of tenants have left except for Savina, Sabeva and a couple others who were given extra time from the church.

Savina said he wonders if it's worth staying now that the vibrant community has been disbanded. 

"I guess living in New York you get used to change," he said. "But I think the longer you’re here, you want to cling on to things that are the same."