After work I picked up my easel and biked around Harlem looking for something to paint. I have painted in so many places in Harlem. But, I have not been around much since last summer. The weather just got warm enough for painting, so I was excited to find something new.
I don’t really know what attracts me to the things I paint. Most of my works are old abandon buildings, scenes of urban decay. Some might say they are scenes of despair, and I can see that, but, to me, they represent freedom and persistence. There is something about weathered broken buildings that fills me with hope and wonder. There is something about graffiti that I find joyful, playful, anarchistic, youthful and free. That’s why I paint the things I do.
As I biked around Harlem I was struck by the fact that (at this point) one must search for a long time to find the kind of haggard building I used to see all the time only three or four years ago.
Sometimes when I’m painting people take offense at my choice of subject. They’ll ask, “Why do you want to paint that?” or “Is that what you want people to think of Harlem?” Of course, I don’t want to make anyplace “look bad” but, like many neighborhoods, the decay is a part of Harlem’s history. We need to remember it why it happened. The bad things about it—and the good that some still managed to find… even in that wreckage.
But the old Harlem is vanishing before my eyes. I feel like I need to hurry. One day in the next 5 years the last burnt-out brownstone will be renovated and then Harlem will be no different than any other bedroom suburb. Some say this has pretty much happened already.
What will I paint then?
I have a few ideas. I’m moving to the financial district. So I want to paint the stock exchange at night, closed offices, empty desks…
Then maybe I’ll paint all the old abandon railroad stations I’ve found in high bridge park.
Still, it makes me sad to see the old Harlem vanish. And it feels strange to be sad about what is essentially a good thing.
I expect the next modern ruins will be in the suburbs, when cars become too expensive to operate.
Perhaps I’ll go there.