Searching for New York’s Hidden Murals

Standing in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street, a person can easily experience a multi-sensory overload — red double-decker tour buses, tourists asking which way the M&M store is, flashy neon-colored billboards and the clanking and whirring of construction sounds.

Yet sandwiched in between two buildings — both over 10 stories tall with large glass windows — a sliver of a mural offers some tranquillity, peeking through the noise and the lights.

The mural, which depicts a New York cityscape through venetian blinds, is the work of SuZen, a 78-year-old multimedia artist who received a $10,000 public grant for the piece in 1984. At the time, the building was home to the notorious Show World Center, one of the city’s largest sex emporiums that offered adult DVDs and peep shows. The shop has been described as “the McDonald’s of Sex,” and for decades stood as a vestige of Times Square’s gritty past.

SuZen never stepped foot inside, never saw a shimmy or rented a video, but because “the image has these blinds that you’re looking through,” a business that hosted peep shows “seemed like a good match,” she said. “It made me chuckle.” The piece — based on a photograph SuZen took from a beauty salon in Manhattan and translated into a mural by Jeffrey Greene, the founder of EverGreene Painting Studios — stood as a faux window on Show World, even after owners began converting the building into offices in 2018.

Then last fall, SuZen noticed that a taller building went up directly adjacent to it, rendering her mural nearly invisible.

“I was sad and heartbroken and upset. No one even notified me that this was happening,” SuZen said. “Do we really need more glass buildings? There are so many empty buildings that I pass.”

In the ever-changing urban landscape of New York City, where real estate is in extremely high demand, there are myriad examples of development — or the tastes of the wealthy and powerful — overtaking public art. At the 5Pointz complex in Queens over a decade ago, 45 murals — the work of 21 graffiti artists — were whitewashed by a developer that was later fined $6.75 million for violating the Visual Artists Rights Act. In 1989, a 120-foot-long rusting steel sculpture in Lower Manhattan by Richard Serra, the renowned sculptor who died earlier this year, was torn down, following backlash from employees who worked in the federal office building the piece was in front of. Last month, New Yorkers mourned the loss of “Sherita,” a pink dinosaur-esque figure on a billboard on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn.

But SuZen’s mural wasn’t painted over or removed. Its existence today is nothing short of miraculous — glimmering through the cracks of the city’s towers, a reminder that some ghosts of public art are around us. Just look closer. I did.

The Visual Artists Rights Act, which was passed in 1990, grants artists “the right to prevent any destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification” of certain publicly displayed works. SuZen got in touch with a lawyer to see if her mural would be protected under the law, but she was told that because her mural went up in 1984, it didn’t apply, she said.

“I don’t know if it’s possible, but it would be wonderful if we could relocate the mural,” she told me.

Richard Haas, an 87-year-old artist living in Manhattan, estimates that more than half of his works have been lost to shifts in the built environment over the years. Known for architectural and trompe l’oeil murals, Mr. Haas has created works in New York, Washington, Cincinnati, Boston, St. Louis, Miami and more.

“I am not naïve enough to think that when I put a work out in the rain it’s not going to get wet. It’s part of the nature of the business,” Mr. Haas said. “Since you’re borrowing somebody else’s building, you really don’t have enough control of it.”

Mr. Haas said that in the process of making his work, he strives “to make sure that it has enough importance — enough character — so that it can fight for its own existence down the road.”

In the 1970s, before SoHo was filled with luxury boutiques and Instagram-bait museums, Mr. Haas created a mural on the facade of a building on the corner of Prince and Greene Streets. The work playfully extended the building’s facade with painted windows and architectural details, but over the years, it deteriorated and was graffitied over. Last year, with financial help from a real estate developer, it was restored beyond its former glory, with the addition of cats and a dog perched on the windows.

I live two blocks from this mural, and I’ve walked by it countless times since the restoration. But I never really saw it until now — in part because of how convincing Mr. Haas’s illusions are, but also because of how public art tends to blend into the streetscape, becoming another tree or stop sign in the background that we’ve been primed to tune out. Unless, that is, you look for it.

While his SoHo mural saw a happy ending for now, Mr. Haas’s work on the former Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown — seven mural panels that depicted the history of immigration on the Lower East Side — saw a different fate. The complex is currently being demolished, expected to be finished by early 2025, to make way for what is anticipated to become the world’s tallest jail. Mr. Haas tried to save his work in a legal battle, but in 2022 a judge ruled that the demolition could continue.

The situation played out the way he thought it would, with “much protest and not much success,” Mr. Haas said.

Yet at the corner of Centre and White Streets, partially covered by scaffolding, there are less grandiose print reproductions of the panels on display. They are temporary, but for now, a flicker of his work remains.

These themes of loss and change — new monuments coming at the cost of old ones — are the subject of “Lost New York,” an exhibition that opened in April at the New-York Historical Society. Over a recent phone call, Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, the museum’s chief curator, said the speed of change in New York “inspires nostalgia and inspires feelings of protection.”

Before his work was seen ubiquitously across Uniqlo T-shirts, Baggu tote bags and Urban Outfitters socks, Keith Haring’s primary canvas was the city’s walls and streets. One of his subway sign drawings — a white stick figure on all fours, drawn below the recognizable “Bowery” text — is on display at the “Lost New York” show.

But some of Mr. Haring’s works can still be spotted in their original locations throughout the city.

In 1987, the artist created a 170-foot-long, playful mural for what was then called the Carmine Street pool (now, it’s the Tony Dapolito pool). The Parks Department closed the public recreation center in 2020 for renovation, but Mr. Haring’s mural is visible from the sidewalk through the pool gate’s black bars. This summer will be the fifth summer in a row that the pool hasn’t been open to the public, as the city continues construction.

Yukie Ohta, an artist and archivist who has lived in SoHo for over 50 years, has been documenting changes in her neighborhood, where murals were once abundant but are now largely replaced by painted advertisements.

“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,” Ms. Ohta, 55, wrote on her website, SoHo Memory Project, in 2011. “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.”

But tucked away in a traffic triangle where Watts and Broome Streets meet, one artwork emblematic of a bygone era remains. There, in the 1970s, Bob Bolles installed sculptures that he created out of metal scraps. The space unofficially became known as “Bobby Bolles Park.” (Mr. Bolles later died.)

In 2001, the Parks Commissioner at the time, Henry J. Stern, called them “junk.”

“The site had become a shelter for the homeless and a dump site for trash. We wanted to create a new beautiful green space with trees, shrubs and flowers,” Mr. Stern had told The Times.

Mr. Bolles’s artworks were evicted from their home and placed in storage on Randall’s Island.

Following backlash from longtime SoHo residents and community groups, the Parks Department agreed to bring some of the sculptures back. Today, one of Mr. Bolles’s pieces — a metal object shaped like a cactus — still stands in the center of the triangle.

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