The 100-foot pedestrian tunnel that runs under the Cross Island Parkway in the far-flung community of Bellerose, Queens had been a source of irritation for residents over many years, racking up complaints to the city that it was filled with trash and broken beer bottles, the smell of urine and profanity-laced graffiti, all of which was taken in by locals simply trying to make their way to work and children heading to school each day. As is so often true of community improvement, it took the right partnership of people and institutions to finally resolve the issue. Concerned residents organized to petition State Senator Tony Avella and the New York Department of Transportation, who partnered with the nearby St. Gregory school and a local artist and educator (yours truly) to make this transformation become a reality this Spring.
I had the pleasure of working with some incredible, creative and talented 8th graders at St. Greg’s, along with their inspiring teacher, Joseph Paniccia, aka Mr. P, and other faculty members. We began the process by having several workshops in the classroom in which I introduced the students to public art, facilitated discussions and activities in which they explored issues that they were concerned about in their community, and finally guided the process of bringing together everyone’s ideas into one cohesive mural design. As the two walls of the underpass are incredibly long, we came up with many images and themes related to the importance of educational opportunities, the value of creativity and the tension that many students said they felt between negative and positive influences on their lives.
In one section, a boy is struggling with the world on his shoulders, while a giant student made up of many smaller people comes to help him with his burden, symbolizing the importance of the entire community and society coming together to support those who are most vulnerable. In another part, a boy presses his headphones to his ears and listens intensely to positive messages he is receiving, while attempting to block out the negativity that threatens to tear him down and lead him down the wrong path. In the circular shapes on either side of him, students created works and images that related to the specific negative and positive messages that they receive in their daily lives. At one of the tunnel entrances, a giant character, modeled by one of the students, reads a book under her covers in bed, while in the darkness the participants painted dozens of storybook characters, a nod to the importance of reading and imagination.
On the other end, a giant Mr. P is seen watering a garden, which stretches down the wall into the tunnel. This is no ordinary garden, but one filled with quotes and messages that the students researched and felt inspired by. The image of a teacher watering a garden full of inspiration and learning is intended as an homage to the educators and other adult figures who play such an vital role in the development of our children. Across the tunnel, a woman, modeled after my wife, CJ, is braiding her hair, but coming out of her braids is an immense flow of creativity and color, with a horse galloping ahead toward the rest of the students’ images. The braids symbolize the creativity that flows from all our minds if we cultivate it, leading us to imagine a better world and working toward that goal. Both CJ and our friend, multi-disciplinary artist Ridhima Hegde, worked with us throughout the mural-making process, adding so much to the experience.
After an intensive two weeks of painting, we completed it just in time for a giant celebration in the tunnel with the students and their family members and entire school, as well as members of the Department of Transportation and State Senator Tony Avella, who made speeches praising the students for their hard work. Several students also had their first experiences in public speaking; they were nervous but did so well! I also spoke, thanking all the young artists for truly taking their responsibility seriously to work hard and create a thoughtful and high-quality work of public art, which will live on an be an inspiration in the community of Bellerose for many years to come. I was then honored to be invited to return in June to be the keynote speaker at the students’ eight grade graduation. Thanks to Principal Lynn Alaimo, Mr. P, everyone at the DOT, Senator Avella, CJ, Ridhima, and all the young artists who participated in this unforgettable experience!
Photo credits: Ridhima Hedge and Joel Bergner