From City Walls to City Malls: Public Art in SoHo

Richard Haas' 1975 mural at 112 Prince Street

Public art was kind of a new concept in New York City in the 1970’s, so I think we were lucky to have numerous wall murals in SoHo.  Actual murals, not ads for DKNY or Knob Creek.  The ones that stick out in my mind were the mural at West Broadway and Houston by Jason Crum and the mural at Mercer and Houston by Dorothy Gillespie, but there were lots of others in and around the neighborhood.  And then there are the two that are still up, namely, the trompe l’oeil mural by Richard Haas at Prince and Greene and, of course, “The Wall” by Forrest Myers at Broadway and Houston, which is also called “The Gateway to SoHo.”

Dorothy Gillespie mural at Houston and Mercer Streets (source unknown)

I saw the Dorothy Gillespie mural on the corner of Mercer and Houston every day.  I never liked it very much, its pale, pastel colors looked faded and dull to me long before the mural actually started to fade.  But the sight of it signaled that I was almost home, so I found comfort in it nonetheless.  I also saw the Jason Crum mural on an almost daily basis on the way to and from school.  That one, with its bright primary colors and sharp graphics, appealed more to my five-year-old’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Many of the neighborhood murals, including the Crum painting, were sponsored by City Walls, a not-for-profit organization, established in 1969 by Crum and others, that worked with artists and communities to revitalize New York City through public art.

Viewing the city as a work of art, the organization sponsored more than fifty murals by twenty-eight differnt artists. Early members and artists included Nassos Daphnis, Allan D’Arcangelo, Jason Crum, Mel Pekarsky, Tania, Robert Wiegand, and Todd Williams. Doris C. Freedman served as president of City Walls from 1971 to 1980. (from The Fales Library Guide to the Public Art Fund Archives)

Jason Crum mural sponsored by City Walls at West Broadway and Houston (photo by David Bromberg)

SoHo was not the lively hub of activity back then as it is today.  The murals of City Walls and others added a much needed splash of color to an otherwise pretty drab landscape.  They also introduced me to modern art in a way that was at once in-your-face and subtle.  The murals were huge, colorful and hard to avoid, but they were also there, day after day, so they kind of receded to the periphery of my consciousness, melding with the rest of my surroundings.  Such is the power of public art.

Nowadays, it is too lucrative to sell wall space in SoHo to advertisers for building owners to pass up offers in the interest of beautification.  In this way, wall murals have become an art form seen only in low-income neighborhoods, where the alternative to artwork is a blank wall.  And thus, at least in SoHo, the wall mural has been supplanted by the billboard.  Such is the power of commerce.

Listen to this great discussion of public art on the show “Artists in the City” from WNYC on August 23, 1970 hosted by Doris Freedman, with Jason Crum and Alan D’Arcangelo (from New York Public Radio):

WNYC Artists in the City

THE WALL (1973) by Forrest Myers on Houston at Broadway

Mel Pekarsky mural sponsored by City Walls at Lafayette and Bleecker Streets

Mel Pekarsky's 1972 mural sponsored by City Walls on Houston between Crosby and Lafayette (photo by David Bromberg)

Closeup of Pekarsky mural (photo by David Bromberg)

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40 Responses to “From City Walls to City Malls: Public Art in SoHo”

  1. SoHo Man Says:

    The kitty in the window was always a highlight for me, at the 112 Prince mural!

    • Yukie Says:

      Me too! I always looked for it. Though I haven’t seen it lately. Is it still there, or perhaps it’s now obscured by graffiti?

  2. SoHo Man Says:

    By the way, who did the mural above Gristidies on Greene st? Thats one the last murals standing from that era too.

  3. SoHo Man Says:

    Another interesting topic would be the graffiti alleys of Soho.
    Oh yeah and also the Flea market that used to be on Broadway and the two on Canal.
    And also all the cool old little shops that used to be on Canal.

    And the playground, before NYU built their gym there on Greene and Houston.

    Oh yeah, and the Grand Union!
    LOL

  4. Yukie Says:

    Thanks for all of the great ideas. I’ve started writing a post on the playground, a BIG part of my childhood. Does anyone happen to remember if NYU promised us another playground in the place of the one they razed to build Coles?

  5. Sean Says:

    Yes, and therein lies the scandal.

    As part of the deal to build Coles (NYU needed special zoning permits), NYU promised the community use of a playground on top of Coles (as well as use of the gym itself).
    NYU built the playground on the roof, and you can see the equipment on the Houston Street side, but provided no stairs to enable the public to access it, except by entering Coles – which is generally off-limits to the public. Catch-22 anyone?

    NYU also had built a smaller sandlot playground inside the I.M. Pei towers, at Greene and Houston. It was primarily for use by its tenants in the towers, but NYU closed it about ten years ago.
    Now, NYU wants to demolish Coles, take over that long strip of land on Mercer that contains the dog run and closed-off sitting/sitting area and small playground from Dept of Transportation, and build on this larger land area its “Zipper” Building, which will be as high as 26- stories.

    http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2011/03/24/nyus_greenwich_village_expansion_plans_from_the_ground_up.php#more

    NYU wants to replace the dog run inside the I.M. Pei complex and add a playground there. Cynically, I guess to win over the parents, NYU has opened the sandlot playground on Houston/Greene this week after closing it for a decade. I guess they are trying to win over parents to support their proposal to build the God-awful Zipper Building on Mercer.

    Finally, although NYU promised adults in the community use of Coles, admission hours are so restricted as to be useless as a regular gym, being accessible only a few hours on the weekend.

    Remember all this when NYU gives promises and asks for permits to build the Zipper Building next year. The SoHo Alliance is working with community groups in Greenwich Village who oppose NYU’s scheme.

    Feel free to add yourself onto our email list to stay informed.

  6. Yukie Says:

    I remember the promise of a rooftop playground as well. And finally someone with a bit more authority has confirmed this! And thank you for filling us in on the current Zipper Building situation!

  7. SoHo Man Says:

    Ahhh, big deal….my real playground was the twisted metal sculptures in the triangle on Broome between thompson and W. Bdway, anyway! LOL

    • David Crum Jr Says:

      I grew up on Broome at Wooster. Remember the pepper factory on Broome and W. Broadway?

      • Yukie Says:

        I don’t remember it! On which corner? I’ll try to look it up…

      • David Crum Jr Says:

        The corner direct across from the Broome St Bar. In the morning the pepper smell hit you like a brick. Soho was a very differnt place in the 70s. I know how lucky I was to be there when the artists were

      • Yuki Iwashiro Says:

        Yes! It always smelled like pepper! It was the NE corner of West Broadway & Broome. And at some point that mural went up. I think it said something like “The best artist in the world – Rene”.

      • Elizabeth Says:

        I remember the strong smell of pepper as I walked to school. Also remember passing the “I am the Best Artist” mural. Wasn’t there some kind of live chicken market nearby on Watts Street? I think there was also a chocolate covered cherry factory on Wooster between Grand Street and Canal. I remember seeing chocolate covered cherries lying on the sidewalk in the mornings.

  8. James Taylor Says:

    I may have drifted a few blocks off your beat, but this mural perhaps deserves recognition also:

    66-306

    • Yukie Says:

      I do not know where this is (although I’d guess it was somewhere in the area where Chinatown and Little Italy intersect, but it was done by City Arts (http://www.cityarts.org/), an organization that brings children and professional artists together to create public art.

  9. James Taylor Says:

    Any clues as to this one?

    66-328

    • Yukie Says:

      I don’t know where this one is (was) either, though I’d guess maybe alphabet city(???), but it’s called Chi Lai Arriba Rise Up, and it was also done by City Arts.

  10. James Taylor Says:

    I believe both are on Madison Street, at 130 and 191.

  11. David Crum Jr Says:

    As a kid I went with my uncle Jason Crum and watched theses paintings come to be. I miss him and the walls every time I am on Houston

  12. Janos Spitzer Says:

    Jason Crum was a friend of mine many years ego. I lost touch with
    him, but a small painting that he gave me hangs next to my desk at home. I wonder what happened to him.
    Janos

  13. David Crum Jr Says:

    Jason moved from his W. Broadway loft to Colorado where he painted and raised his son. He taught art at the University of Southern California off and on. He passed on and is buried on an artist community in Colorado. Great to hear you still have one of his paintings. They are rare and hard to find. His brother David is still painting and lives on 1st St at 1st Ave

  14. Richard Crum Says:

    Jason also had[I hope still does, havent been in in NYC for several years]a wall painting on Church St in Lower manhattan. This wall painting was one of the few that was maintained over the years. Ther was also one in east village [close to 7th and C?] and several in the Bronx. Actually Jason’s left behind many quality paintings which are, I’m sure, for sale.

  15. Richard Crum Says:

    The last ime I saw the one in east village it was badly deteriorated…and that was many years ago. The one on Church St is great, it has sharp angular lines and many colors[black, blue, red , yellow, white, if memory serves.

  16. Richard Crum Says:

    The one in the East Village[we called it Alphabet City back then, no where near chic] was in a vacant lot in the middle of the block, not sure exactly which street?6th?7th?

  17. Richard Crum Says:

    Here’s an interesting link.

    http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=1318

  18. eugene Says:

    http://popartxpert.blogspot.com/2011/08/jason-crum-1933-2005.html

    I met Jason vvhen I moved to US. I also spent a lot of time vvith him in the Veteran’s Hospital in LA as he vvas alone and nobody vvas visiting him. I bought fevv peintings of his that I took back to Romania vvith me vvhen I relocated.
    Before he got into the hospital ( initially because a motorcycle accident, and then cancer vvas discovered) I photographed most of his vvork that he had in his manager’s apartment off Melrose in LA.
    If you guys are interested to kovv more about him, contact me, vve vvare good friends despite the age difference.
    alpannart@yahoo.com

  19. Richard Crum Says:

    Wow, so glad you were there for him. I was only able to get there myself[dont live close] once. Jason had family and friends in LA sorry to hear they werent there. Kinda karma for Jason that a relative stranger spent time with him at that time. He actually was a frequent visitor of Woody Guthrie during his last days in a hospital in NYC. I’ll send you an email. I’m at baycraftsman@yahoo.com

  20. Street Art: Erasing Noho’s Artistic Past Where Matt Damon Used to Hang - The Broker Buddy Says:

    [...] Place opposite the spinning cube and overlooked the entryway to the East Village. It was one of many murals from City Walls, a collective artistic endeavor resulting in massive painted walls from the Village [...]

  21. Pete Davies Says:

    This post is linked in an article at CURBED NY published today, 29 December 2011, about the mural ” … in the Astor Bar” by Robert Wiegand at 441 Lafayette near Astor Place:

    Erasing Noho’s Artistic Past Where Matt Damon Used to Hang

    http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2011/12/29/erasing_nohos_artistic_past_where_matt_damon_used_to_hang.php#lafayette-noho-robert-wiegand-mural-2

  22. Carol Says:

    wondering why the Haas mural on Prince isn’t being maintained.
    it’s in sad shape. anyone know?

    • Sean Sweeney Says:

      The cost is very prohibitive to repaint it, likely in the hundred of thousands.

      The building owner reached out to the SoHo Alliance recently to see what could be done. We met with the Landmarks Preservation Commission who were supportive, but, again, no funds.

      There was some concern that Camper shoes that owns the adjacent corner building was going to construct a multi-story building that would obscure the mural. However, with the recent extensive renovation of their existing one-story building, that likely won’t happen for a while.

      Again, money is the problem. Know an angel?

      • Carol Says:

        Sean, who put up the money to re-do Frosty Meyer’s mural? I presumed there was a fund attachted to City Walls. naive . can you reccommend other sources for researching soho ca. 1970?

        you remember when the Soho Library was there instead of Camper, no doubt.

      • Sean Sweeney Says:

        The owner of the building, 599 Bdwy, went to court to remove the artwork and install a billboard.
        As part of the agreement, after years of legal work, the arrangement was that a billboard could go up (at street level), The Wall would remain, and the owner paid to restore and maintain the artwork (presumably from the revenues from the billboard).

        Yes, I recall the old art librarary. Before that there was some kind of pizzeria or deli or sandwich shop, catering to the factory workers.

  23. SoHo Memory Quiz Answers Part III | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] This building looks pretty much as it did 40 years ago, and, sadly, this is one of the only remaining “murals” in SoHo.  There was a time when they were everywhere.  The ones that stick out in my mind were the mural at West Broadway and Houston by Jason Crum and the mural at Mercer and Houston by Dorothy Gillespie, but there were lots of others in and around the neighborhood.  And then there are the two that are still up, namely, the trompe l’oeil mural by Richard Haas at Prince and Greene and, of course, “The Wall” by Forrest Myers at Broadway and Houston, which is also called “The Gateway to SoHo.” Read my post on SoHo murals (From City Walls to City Malls) here. […]

  24. Janet Sager Says:

    It was great to find this trace of the contribution of Jason Crum on the SoHo memory project. I married Jason’s at Grace Church in January 1978 and know the history of City Walls from his perspective. For example, he was the founder and President of City Walls with Doris Freedman. I hope to correct the record online and plan create a post mortem website.

    We moved west together and parted amicably in1988. I supported him and our son Edward financially for five years until they both moved to LA (where I still live) in 1993 when Edward came to live with me at age 14.

    In Los Angeles, Jason taught painting for a short time at Cal Arts, (not USC) thanks to an intro by Lyn Foulkes. There he had the benefit health insurance for the first time in his life. He suffered from leg cramps which turned out to be peripheral artery disease and had quadruple bypass surgery in his early sixties. He cleaned up his diet but alas, too little too late. He died of bladder cancer (cigarettes and oil paint are the main culprit) but would have lived longer if he didn’t have a heart attack while in the VA hospital. There were at least five doctors there treating him who didn’t seem to talk to each other.

    Jason died April 28, 2004 in Colorado at the home of his son Angus Crum and is buried at Libre, the commune that he co-founded near Walsenberg CO in the sixties. Contrary to what was reported, many people did visit Jason at the hospital, including many people from All Saints Church. (He was a devout Episcopalian) Jason had longed to be embraced by his old Choinard pals from LA’s “cool school”. He and Ed Ruscha corresponded for years while he lived in Colorado. I have a letter Ed wrote to Jason. I mailed a letter that Jason wrote to Billy Al Bengston from the hospital and recounted that story to Bengston when I saw him a few years ago. He teared up and was sad that he didn’t see Jason when he had the chance but said that he cherishes the letter.

    Please know that Jason did not die alone. His son Edward was very much there for him but not as much as he would have liked because he had taken over Jason’s responsibilities at the Larchmont apartment complex where he was a resident manager for the last eight years of his life, hoping that he would make it home and resume the live that he loved. Jason was at the VA for over two months. His brothers Bob and David flew in to visit at least twice.I came almost every evening after work and once in the middle of the night when he was delirious on morphine and didn’t know where he was. We brought him home on Easter Sunday and then a week or so later, our son Edward Crum flew from Los Angeles with him to his step brother Angus Crum’s home in Colorado and stayed with him there for during his final days.

    Angus who is an engineer and lives near Boulder has many of the paintings in his possession. I have a substantial collection too. His son Edward is a medic in the US Coast Guard in Miami.

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Hello Janet! Thank you so very much for sharing this moving story. An invaluable addition to this blog. We would welcome a post from you about your own or about Jason Crum’s SoHo years, should you wish to write one. Please do let us know when the website is up and running!

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