The Heritage Mural, which adorns the eastern facade of 232 East Broadway on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has already begun to disintegrate. Portions of the muted clay-colored and yellow paint have weathered away, leaving sections of the picture lost to memory now. Soon the building will be razed for new development, and then the mural will live on only in photographs, as there are no efforts to recreate it elsewhere.
On a recent afternoon, Sara Krivisky stood in front of the mural and snapped photos of the wall on her iPhone.
“It’s hard to see what’s going on here at this point,” she said, referring to the peeling paint.
In 1972, Susan Green, an artist who was then the project director of CITYarts Workshop, which facilitated and created public art, initiated the project by approaching the leaders of a neighborhood teen center. The Lower East Side had serious drug and crime problems back then, and CITYarts wanted to get kids off the street. They came up with the idea to paint a mural, and Lenny Rosenberg and his friend Bobbie Kaplan, who ran a teen center at the Young Israel Synagogue, put together a team.
For six months, the group, which included Krivisky, met twice a week to brainstorm ideas and come up with a timeline of events pertaining to Lower East Side history that could fit together nicely in a square frame.
On the upper left-hand side, the mural depicts a group of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. Below, protesters are seen demonstrating as part of the social labor movement. There are nods to Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and Hanukkah, as well as culturally relevant institutions such as the Forverts newspaper and the sewing jobs many immigrants held. Two Jews are chained to a Star of David, which is meant to represent the Jewish struggle behind the Iron Curtain. Above it, there is a representation of the Holocaust as flames engulf two people. The mural ends on a hopeful and forward-looking note as Krivisky and another artist painted portraits of their parents alongside portraits of themselves to represent the generations — past, present and future — of the neighborhood. Written on the bottom is the line, “Our Strength is Our Heritage, Our Heritage is Our Life.”
“It’s our faces,” said Krivisky. “It’s so sad to see it go.”
In 2015, the Bialystoker Nursing Home at 228 East Broadway, next door to the mural, sold for almost $18 million. With the sale, the owner, known only as Five Star 228 East Broadway Development LLC, also acquired the adjoining lot and office building, on which the mural is painted. Both buildings are to be redeveloped, though no exact plans have been made public.
When the neighborhood heard the building would be renovated, several people sprang into action. Author Joyce Mendelsohn worked to get the Bialystoker home landmarked, and was successful, which means the facade will be preserved. Unfortunately for the mural, the nursing home, with its Art Deco entrance and limestone engravings depicting the 12 tribes of Judah, took precedence when the preservationists picked which battles to fight.
“The mural has no comparison between the history and significance to the nursing home,” said Laurie Tobias Cohen, the executive director at the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, though she expressed sadness at the mural’s imminent demise.
“There’s no effort to do anything,” she explained, gazing up at the painting. “When the nursing home decided to sell, all bets were off.”
“I’d love to see this thing get restored,” said Lenny Rosenberg, “but unfortunately I’m 68 and I don’t live near there anymore. It’s a shame that it was never restored or fixed up then, but as it turns out, it probably doesn’t make a difference now that they’re tearing down the building.”
Tsipi Ben-Haim, who’s been the executive and creative director at CITYarts (which was formed in 1989 as the successor to CITYarts Workshop) for 27 years, explained that CITYarts owns the copyright for the mural, but it does not own the artwork.
“If we owned the artwork of every building we created murals on, the owners would not let us do it,” she said.
Two years ago, Krivisky, who lives in Florida, attempted to save the art, and enlisted her son’s help. He tried to reach the old owner of the Bialystoker Nursing Home, but never heard back. When he moved to Virginia for business school, no one else made additional efforts to contact the real estate company.
“The push is always forward. I get it,” Krivisky said. “I just think this is a cool, cultural piece,” she added wistfully.
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow.