This is a daily news piece written for my Reporting class at the Columbia School of Journalism. Image credit: CITYarts
NEW YORK—This Monday, non-profit CITYarts unveiled a new mural in the Alexander Hamilton playground. It is part of a three-part series entitled “Following in the Footsteps of Alexander Hamilton,” which pays homage to the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton, American Founding Father and former resident of Harlem Heights, where the playground is located.
Based in New York City, CITYarts brings together youth and professional artists to plan and install colorful mosaics and murals. To date, CITYarts’ projects have engaged over 200,000 youth and 500,000 volunteers, who collaborate to beautify neglected community spaces in the city.
CITYarts is part of the growing trend of beautification within New York City. The completion of the mural comes just weeks after introduction of the 2019 Daffodil project, the largest beautification project in the history of the city. Residents of New York City will be provided with over 500,000 daffodil bulbs to be planted in memory of 9/11, and to contribute to continued city-wide beautification efforts.
New York City Councilman Mark Levine, a key supporter of the mural, noted that the “playground had been neglected for a number of years,” before CITYarts was able to intervene. He calls the mural both “inspiring and uplifting.”
The project is the result of a collaboration between students from the Summer Youth Employment program and lead artist Hugo Bastidas. The Ecuadorian artist is known for his hyper-real black and white oil paintings, which are included in the collections of numerous museums and are routinely exhibited across the United States.
Bastidis says that the project is unique, as it allows youth to take ownership over different parts of the mural, making it “a gift to the community, by the community.” To add an additional pop of color to the playground, his group of student artists also decided to re-paint the basketball court directly in front of the mural.
Student Matthew Valez became involved with CITYarts through SYEP. “We kept (the mural) consistent by looking at the pictures and sketches that Hugo made,” and by following his suggestions to “put more paint on, less paint on,” he says. Though Valez’s initial goal was to stave off summer boredom, he had much more fun than he expected. “I enjoyed it. It was a great experience,” he says. “I learned a lot while I was here.”
Bastidis worked with students on the two earlier murals in the series, which were based on the themes of “Summer” and “Winter.” The most recent painting was based on “Spring,” and is made up of impressionistic splotches of different shades of green, with leaves and flowers sprouting from its base. It is inscribed with thirteen quotes representing the Thirteen Colonies, some of which were stated by Alexander Hamilton, while others merely reflect values the student artists believe Hamilton would have stood by.
Extensive thought went into the symbolic elements of the mural. “We worked closely with the building as well as local community members and students on the mural process from design to completion,” says William Bernstein, Project Coordinator at CITYarts. In collaboration with lead artist Bastidis, the youth conducted research to ensure the mural was an accurate reflection of their neighbourhood. “The students worked very closely with our lead artist in both workshops and field trips. These workshops included researching local flowers as well as insects,” says Bernstein. “They took trips to galleries and museums such as the MET Cloisters, where each student picked a flower to further research. Each student had a flower that they went ahead and painted on the mural themselves.”
The ribbon-cutting ceremony included musical performances by the Every Voice youth choir, and Malcom Frank, community actor, who performed two pieces from the Broadway musical Hamilton. According to Frank, the popularity of the play has “rejuvenated” Hamilton’s legacy, especially in Hamilton Heights, where the politician spent the last two years of his life.
The ribbon was cut by Councilman Mark Levine, Mickey Wade of the West Harlem Development Corporation, and Tsipi Ben-Haim, Executive and Creative Director of CITYarts. Ben-Haim, who founded the non-profit thirty years ago this year, emphasized that “we need to involve and engage our youth actively, always, every day, giving them wonderful, special opportunities to make their communities and their lives better than ever.”