Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Can Public Artwork Assist to Heal Previous Divisions?

Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Can Public Art Help to Heal Old Divisions?

A diverse inner suburb north of the Bronx, Mount Vernon, N.Y., has long been a divided city. But in the middle of the city a site-specific new public sculpture was installed with the aim of healing an old civil wound.

In the 1890s, in response to street-level pedestrian deaths, the New York & New Haven railroad tracks were lowered into a trench called the Cut that cut through the heart of Mount Vernon along First Street. Unlike New York City, which covered its own sunken tracks north of Grand Central Terminal in the early 20th century to maintain the thriving boulevard of Upper Park Avenue, Mount Vernon left its tracks free and split into two unequal halves: the affluent, suburban North Side; and the poorer and ultimately more urban South Side, which borders the Bronx.

The Cut created an obnoxious and enduring "environmental redline," Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard said in an interview. "It was redlining before banks started redlining." Bigger houses, bigger yards, most of the commerce, town hall, hospital and courthouse are all on the north side, while council housing, senior housing and much fewer shops have been built on the more densely populated “other side of the tracks”. ”

The racial and economic divide is marked. A five-year census poll that concluded in 2019 estimated 83 percent of the South Side residents were black, 12 percent Hispanic, and just two percent were white, according to analysis by Susan Weber-Stoger, a demographer at Queens College. The North Side was more diverse, with an estimated 46 percent black, 28 percent white, and 20 percent Hispanic American population. The estimated median family income was $ 86,056 on the north side compared to $ 67,482 on the south side.

Ten bridges served as sutures over the cut in the past, connecting the two halves of Mount Vernon. But over the past decade, several of these bridges, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have been closed for various periods of time, adding to the division of the city. Four bridges were closed to motor vehicles simultaneously for nearly 14 months in 2018 and 2019, and Third Avenue intersection was closed to motor vehicles from around 2010 until August this year when a replacement bridge opened.

"The psychological effect of closing these bridges was a bit like having a zombie home in your neighborhood," said Ms. Patterson-Howard, the mayor. "It felt like nobody cared." Police and ambulance response times have sometimes been lengthened due to the detours emergency vehicles had to take, she said.

However, on a recently sun-blinded afternoon, the new 10th Avenue Bridge, which opened in June, more than 10 years after the closure of its defunct predecessor, showed signs of renewal. On the south side of the cut, empty shop fronts were littered with graffiti and an empty Roman Catholic church was lined with rubbish. On the north side the street led up a hill, past a funeral home, to a neighborhood of pretty single-family homes.

If these scenes seemed to tell a story of two cities, the dynamic, text-based artwork installed by workers on the bridge's western parapet did its best to change the conversation. The sculpture is a decorative fence made entirely of playful, cursive words cut into aluminum. It was created by Mark Fox, a New York artist whose work has ended up in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

"Hey, not so fast Mount Vernonite", the swirling words in the sculpture call passers-by. “A year has 31,536,000 seconds. It only takes you 20 seconds to cross this bridge, so slow down, come closer, spend some time and keep me company. "

At first glance, the black letters looping through the flat sculpture, through which you can see the Metro-North platform below, seem almost like abstract shapes. But on closer inspection, words and sentences emerge from the jumble that invite passers-by to puzzle out stories from the history of their city that are told in the text.

Spanning the 109-foot bridge are two strings of words that are taller than the rest and crisscross like huge, meandering strands of Mount Vernon's DNA. And in the space pockets around these repetitive sentences are collections of smaller words, each of which is a poetic legend discussing a single aspect of the city's past.

The stylized text tells the story of the region from the indigenous Siwanoy to Dutch settlers in the 17th century. The descriptions then go on to the more recent arrivals from the Caribbean and South and Central America. The design also pays homage to luminaries who called Mount Vernon home, such as opera diva Adelina Patti and civil rights activist Dr. Betty Shabazz, whose inspiring words "Find the good and praise it" are paraphrased in the text of the sculpture.

"I wanted the bridge to have some kind of posture and at some point it was kind of smart and I had to take it back, but it still starts with that voice," said Mr. Fox.

“The people crossing over will be Mount Vernonites, not tourists,” he said, “so I wanted the bridge to talk to them about their city. I wanted it to have that tone of discovery. "

One of the first to look at the sculpture was Robert Torno of Risa Management Corp., who deciphered the meaning of the text while overseeing the installation.

"I thought it was a man's life at first, but then I realized it was the story of the community," he said. “The longer you stare at it, the more interested you are in reading more. Schoolchildren could come on an excursion here: They can look at it and read as much of the story as they can get hold of in their time here, and when they come back to school they can share their ideas about the history of the community. "

Grinning at a new discovery, Mr. Torno pointed to the word “mouse” which appeared next to the words “E.B. White ”, the resident of Mount Vernon, who, according to legend, got the inspiration for his children's book“ Stuart Little ”from visiting a mouse when he was sick as a child. The text by Stuart Little was purposely placed at the bottom of the sculpture for kids to read, according to Mr. Fox, along with a section on rap artists Heavy D and the Boyz whose 1980s hit song gave the town its latter -Day nickname "Money-Earnin 'Mount Vernon".

Mr. Fox's artwork "really captured the changing face of Mount Vernon with all of its different ethnic groups," said Daniel Frett, a lifelong Mount Vernonite trustee of the Westchester County Historical Society. "The Jewish groups, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Brazilians and the Caribbean people who moved in."

The 10th Avenue Bridge, which cost approximately $ 11.5 million to be revitalized, is one of six bridges over the Cut in downtown Mount Vernon that the M.T.A. is replaced. In addition to the newly opened Third Avenue Bridge, the rebuilt Sixth Avenue Bridge resumed cars and pedestrians last September, and the 14th Avenue Bridge reopened in 2019.

Each of the six bridges will ultimately have a work of art along one side of their span that will be combined to create what M.T.A. Officials envision an art walk on First Street. Along with the sculpture by Mr. Fox, the works of three other artists – Frances Gallardo, Josué Guarionex and Damien Davis – were installed on the 14th Avenue, Sixth Avenue and Third Avenue bridges. Two more art installations are planned for the coming years on Fulton Avenue and South Street Bridge.

"I am pleased that the M.T.A. has finally kept his promises, ”said Ms. Patterson-Howard, noting that the text from Mr. Fox & # 39; The work of art contained a pointed description of the split that was caused 125 years ago by the railway ditch that the sculpture spans today. For the ongoing social divide caused by the cut, "it is really important to be recognized and placed directly on this bridge," added the mayor. "It's something we haven't talked about in a long time."

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