“That is beautiful,” are not the words most New Yorkers utter when scaffolding goes up. However, it was the reaction of restoration artist Denise Penizzotto when she saw the tubes, netting and platforms covering the decaying “Against Domestic Colonialism” mural in Mathews-Palmer Playground. “I hope that I can jump up and piggyback on those wall repairs,” she added.

Scaffolding now fully covers the mural at Mathews-Palmer Playground. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

The scaffolding, erected by the cooperative this week, gives hope that the 60′ x 65′ mural can be restored to its original glory, It was created in 1972 and is one of the earliest community murals to be painted in New York City. “They really are a window into what was going on at a neighborhood at a certain point in time,” said Jane Weissman, co-author of “On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City.

Mathews-Palmer Playground (originally called May Mathews/Alexandra Palmer Park) is sandwiched between 9th and 10th Avenues, with entrances on W45th and W46th Streets. The mural that occupies most of a block wall has faded, the stucco crumbling to obscure large parts of the image. But you can still just about make out a bulldozer against a backdrop of skyscrapers, with a grim figure slumped over large blocks of concrete. Two further circles show multiracial groups of people holding up books, flowers, and flags. “We the people demand control of our communities,” reads a sign.

The Hell’s Kitchen community helped artist Arnold Belkin (with brush) paint the original mural. Photo: Patricia Quijano-Ferrer/Belkin Estate.

“Against Domestic Colonialism” is a loud, proud, anti-gentrification message that is as relevant today as when it was painted by renowned muralist Arnold Belkin back in 1972.

The original mural. Hell’s Kitchen 1972. Photographer Unknown.

Belkin was born in Canada but, at the age of 18, moved to Mexico to study with David Alfaro Siqueiros, a key member of the Mexican Mural Movement. Belkin went on to produce many notable murals in Central America, but this is thought to be his only outdoor work in the US.

Scaffolding and local helpers for the original mural. Photo: Patricia Quijano-Ferrer/Belkin Estate.

However, the years, the weather, and some insensitive wall repairs have not been kind, and the mural is now in a bad way. A campaign is underway to repair it for future generations to enjoy. The W46th Street Block Association has worked with neighbors and heritage groups for the past 10 years, and since our first report in 2016 has raised nearly $50,000.

The original plans of Arnold Belkin that artist Denise Penizzotto will use to reinstate the mural.
The mural showing signs of age in April 2016. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Matthews-Palmer Playground is no stranger to drama. In 1959, teenagers were stabbed to death by a 16-year-old immigrant from Puerto Rico, who mistook them for members of a rival gang. The boy, Salvador Agron, was dubbed the “Cape Man” by the tabloids because of the satin-lined cape he’d worn that night. Agron was sentenced to death for the murders. However, the sentence was overturned six days before the execution was to take place after the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. The story was turned into a Broadway musical by Paul Simon, called “The Capeman”. It opened three blocks away at the Marquis Theatre in 1998 to poor reviews and ran for 68 performances.

The playground has another connection to Paul Simon. It was used to film the video of ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’ in 1988 to promote his greatest hits album. It stood in for Halsey Junior High School in Forest Hills, Queens, the neighborhood in which Simon grew up and met Art Garfunkel in high school. The video has cameos from Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Spud Webb, Mickey Mantle and John Madden.

Hell’s Kitchen has recently lost two artworks. Earlier in the year, the Art Deco Lobby at 330 W42nd Street was demolished by its owners. Meanwhile, 1199 SIEU decided to replicate their Anton Refregier mosaic at the Martin Luther King Labor Center piece by piece at their new HQ on Seventh Avenue. The original on W43rd Street will be turned to rubble in the coming weeks.

Negotiations for Belkin’s work are ongoing with NYC District 3 City Council, NYC Park and Recreations, and with the cooperative on whose wall the mural resides.

“We call it a re-creative restoration,” Penizzotto told Patch earlier this week. “We are restoring the mural to its vitality, but we have to really start from scratch as far as the painting goes.”

It is hoped that a wall resurfacing can happen this year while the scaffolding is up. Once the wall is resurfaced, the painting will be undertaken by Denise.

Keep updated on their website at http://www.mathews-palmer-playground-mural-arts-program.com/ Donations can be made at the 46th Street Block Association GoFundMe page.

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