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Decaying Art in Public Housing Should Be Restored and Celebrated, City Says

By Emily Frost | October 24, 2016 6:28pm
 A new nonprofit is fundraising to restore public art at Wise Towers on West 91st Street. 
Wise Towers Sculptures to Get Restored
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UPPER WEST SIDE — When the Wise Towers complex first opened on West 91st Street in 1964, the city's Public Housing Authority commissioned art for one of the development's outdoor plazas as "an experiment," according to news reports at the time. 

The famous Italian artist Constantino Nivola sculpted a band of 18 horses, built two 9-foot-tall pyramid sculptures, and carved a mural out of cement on an adjacent building wall at the complex, located between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.

But almost immediately, nearly all of the horses' noses were chipped off by vandals, said Dorothy Holohan, 84, a founding resident who still lives in Wise Towers. 

Antonio Danzie, 61, who moved in when he was 9 years old and still lives at Wise Towers, recalled that a group of vandals took a sledge hammer to the noses the same year the sculptures were created.

The mural and the pyramids fared better.  

Courtesy: NYCHA Collection/ La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College/CUNY

"Thank God [vandals] never bothered it with graffiti. And we never played handball off it," he said while observing the mural Monday. 

Now, an initiative from the newly created Fund for Public Housing has made restoring and publicizing art at NYCHA complexes one of its priorities. The nonprofit is looking to restore the Wise Towers pieces, as well as helping people understand their history and importance, director Rasmia Kirmani-Frye said.

The fund was formed in 2015 to pair philanthropic dollars with projects at the city's 328 public housing developments. Since January, it has raised $900,000 in private donations, Kirmani-Frye said.

Wise Towers is just one of 28 sites that have been cataloged as having public art in need of restoration, she said.

Through documenting all public art, the fund can determine whether partnership opportunities exist. 

"Does that [art] spark a funder's interest or a museum's interest?" Kirmani-Frye asked.

She would like to see the art not only restored and preserved, but have sites modernized so that the artwork plays a more prominent role. 

For instance, a new plaque explaining the significance of the pieces would bring attention to them, she said. 

"I would bet people don't know about it," she said of the Wise Towers pieces, because there aren't any plaques or signs explaining it. "It's important for residents to know that they have historic art."

Courtesy: NYCHA Collection/ La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College/CUNY

Danzie, who has lived at Wise Towers for 52 years, agreed that the artwork is not something people know much about. 

"A lot of people walk by and don't even notice it," he said.

Nivola didn't even sign the mural, Holohan noted.

"It would be nice if they would restore it," she said.

While they aren't any restoration plans in the works yet for the site, people are "coming out of the woodwork" to donate to the fund, including alumni of public housing, Kirmani-Frye said. 

Part of the cataloging process is to discover what exists on NYCHA grounds and to hear residents' stories about what the pieces mean to them, said Aaron Schraeter, a creative outreach coordinator for the housing authority.

"We are starting from scratch," he said Monday, adding that NYCHA is digging through handwritten records that haven't been organized.

"I have a personal stake in making sure that residents know the real history of what these things are and where they come from."

Part of that investigation involves simply talking to residents about the art.

"It strikes a chord," Schraeter said, "because it’s part of their everyday lives."