National News

After Moving Into the Neighborhood, a Store Walls Off ‘Spirit of Harlem’

Posted December 17, 2017 7:49 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The glass mosaic had been a familiar sight on the southeast corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem for more than a decade. But that changed last month when workers for a sneaker store that had moved into the storefront on that corner began installing a new facade.

Bit by bit, a wall rose until the bright colors of a 10-foot-by-30-foot mural, called “Spirit of Harlem,” were obscured by an expanse of bricks painted matte black. A long sign spelled out the name of the tenant: Footaction.

Word of the artwork’s absence spread through blog posts and social media.

The mural’s creator, Louis Delsarte, said he was dismayed by the covering up of the work, a reference to the Harlem Renaissance, which in the early 20th century established the neighborhood as a center of African-American culture. One person started a petition to have the mural restored. Another called for a boycott of Footaction.

Then, last week, Footaction’s parent company, Foot Locker, said that it would backtrack. The wall should not have been placed over the mural, a spokeswoman for the company said, and would soon be coming down.

“We respect and honor Harlem’s rich and diverse history and are committed to preserving and restoring the ‘Spirit of Harlem’ mural that has become a meaningful tribute to that history,” the spokeswoman, Tracy Royal, wrote in an email.

Royal said that Foot Locker was planning to remove the bricks within 30 days, adding, “We are currently working through the city permitting process.”

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Buildings, said last week that there was no record yet of an application for permission to remove any part of the new facade. And on Sunday, the agency’s online database did not appear to show any applications related to the facade removal.

Delsarte, 73, who was born in Brooklyn and teaches at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said he was gratified that his work would once again be visible.

“This mural became part of the environment,” he said. “It’s not a billboard; it’s an original piece of art.”

The mural, which drew inspiration from the Apollo Theater, a few hundred feet to the east, was commissioned in 2005 by North Fork Bank, which then occupied the corner storefront, Delsarte said. It is one of several large public works that he has created, including a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta and a 20-foot glass mosaic in the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

While growing up nearby in Crown Heights, Delsarte said he met Count Basie, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and James Baldwin, who were friends of his parents.

“I loved their conversations,” he said. “They inspired me to become an artist.”

With “Spirit of Harlem,” he said, he aimed to represent artistic movements that blossomed in the neighborhood between the First and Second World Wars and that have continued since then to help define the cultural contributions of African-Americans.

The mural depicted people like Billie Holiday and Gregory Hines to show the importance of music and performance in Harlem, Delsarte said. In addition to the figurative representations, the work also included a kaleidoscopic background with abstract elements that he said were intended to mirror the blur of activity on a busy urban thoroughfare when viewed from across the street or down the block.

Over the years, tenants in the corner storefront came and went but the mural remained, a steady presence in a gentrifying area.

So it was shocking to some when the brick wall went up and the mural could no longer be seen.

Debra Szybinski, who directs New York University’s faculty resource network, where Delsarte has had residencies, circulated an online petition created by Maira Liriano that reads in part, “Please do not let corporate ignorance erase a beloved public art work which celebrates Harlem’s history as an incubator.”

Liriano, a librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said she started the petition because she was disturbed that a new commercial arrival would cover up an artwork that reflected Harlem’s history. But she added that the episode had also prompted her to consider broader questions.

“When neighborhoods become gentrified, what are the responsibilities of corporations that come in?” she said. “How do we protect public art in New York City?”

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a Harlem institution, said he wanted to meet with Foot Locker to discuss how the mural could be restored.

And Dawoud Bey, a photographer who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award last month and whose best known work includes a solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem called “Harlem USA,” took to Twitter to propose a boycott of Footaction until that was accomplished.

“We have a voice but only if we use it,” he added.

Told that the wall would be removed, Szybinski wondered what condition the mural would be in after the bricks come down. Then she began thinking about how the work could be preserved in the future.

“This mural represented the most beautiful aspects of Harlem,” she said. “That spirit, that music, that rhythm should never be erased.”