One of New York City’s most iconic tunnels (to pedestrians) is less recognizable after a surprise paint job stripped its walls of the curated artwork and added graffiti that’s become synonymous with the thoroughfare.
The 191st Street pedestrian tunnel has become the latest lightning rod for controversy after the city’s Department of Transportation scrubbed the walls over the weekend, exposing the nearly 1,000-foot walkway.
An unofficial Washington Heights landmark, the tunnel connects St. Nicholas Avenue to Broadway for access to the #1 train. Not only has it attracted attention for its painted walls, but concerns about safety and cleanliness have also been reported by parishioners.
People in the community told NBC New York that there had been concerns about drug use, safety and the accumulation of trash in the tunnel, prompting people to call for better maintenance. But no one says the painted murals were a problem.
Despite these concerns, one city council member couldn’t believe the decision to wipe the walls clean and remove what she calls the “soul of the tunnel,” seemingly without community involvement.
“The continued lack of transparency by city officials has long damaged trust in our community,” Councilor Carmen De La Rosa, who represents the area, said in a statement.
She later told NBC New York, “The art was never the problem … it surprises people when they walk in and the story that was in the walls isn’t here anymore.” She added that there were concerns about residents of the tunnel and the presence of hypodermic needles and poor lighting.
A spokesman for the DOT confirmed the agency’s cleanup, saying, “The cleanup is the first step in creating a new art project for the tunnel.”
“We look forward to working closely with the community and local elected officials on a project that celebrates the culture and diversity that makes New York so special,” said interim press secretary Vincent Barone.
DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez said the city has committed “$25 million that we will invest in the infrastructure of this tunnel over the next two years.”
The change comes nearly eight years after the city commissioned artists to fill the tunnel walls with murals. Much of the original artwork has been repainted in the years since.
One of the artists who contributed to the original murals said the art was “something that made me really happy because it lit up the tunnel, lit up the community.”
Those who live in the area again want local artists to lead the way when it comes to telling the story of the community through artistic expression.
“It’s a question of how we organize this and we should spread the word. We have talented people, that’s what we do,” Rodriguez said.
On Monday, some graffiti artists contested the decision to remove the previous work and have already seen painting covering the walls again.
“It’s not surprising to walk in this morning and see the graffiti covered tunnel. There’s a graffiti culture that’s very familiar to New York City,” said De La Rosa.