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NYC’s new Black Lives Matter mural is more than art. It’s the future of urbanism

The process behind the street mural was just as important as the paint job.

NYC’s new Black Lives Matter mural is more than art. It’s the future of urbanism
[Photo: courtesy Justin Garrett Moore]

Ever since the words Black Lives Matter were painted in bright yellow on the street behind the White House on June 5, similar projects have appeared on the streets of cities across the country. They’ve been alternately welcomed and criticized, both from those within the Black Lives Matter movement and those outside.

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So when officials in Manhattan set out to paint their own street mural in the Civic Center—an area adjacent to land that was a burial ground for people of African descent in the 17th and 18th centuries—they knew they couldn’t mess it up. Rather than rushing to get something on the ground, the New York City Public Design Commission, which has jurisdiction over all buildings and art proposed on city-owned property, slowed the process down and listened to the community. “We actually took the time to have the conversations with people that are in the actual Black Lives Matter movement,” says Justin Garett Moore, executive director of the Public Design Commission.

The result is a 600-foot-long mural that not only says “Black Lives Matter” but is rooted in the principles that guide the movement.

Led by the office of Manhattan borough president Gale A. Brewer and under the guidance of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, the project was coordinated by designers of color from WXY, an architecture and urban planning firm based in New York.

[Photo: courtesy Justin Garrett Moore]
Doing it right meant much more than closing down the street and passing out the paint rollers, according to Amina Hassen, an associate and urban planner at WXY, named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in 2019. To ensure the mural aligned with the broader message of the movement, she says how it got made and who was involved was just as important as how it looked.

“At the end of the day, the mural is what people remember because that’s the tangible object that they will be a part of. But what we knew as collaborators was that the process leading to the mural was just as important,” says Hassen.

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Originally conceived in early June and targeted for completion on Juneteenth, the mural’s timeline quickly conflicted with the politics of getting it painted. Hassen says an early issue arose when one of the companies selected to help was found to have workplace practices that ran counter to the movement’s anti-racism stance. It was decided that for the project to move forward, everyone involved would need to be aligned with the movement’s message. This led to “a lot of calls,” Moore says. The three-day street closure permit the city had granted was postponed, and there was a complete rethinking of how to run the project and who should be involved, adding weeks to the process.

[Photo: courtesy Justin Garrett Moore]
But according to Hassen, the delay was trivial compared to the message. “We decided it was actually more important to go and seek out an organization that had both the technical capacity to do it within the timeframe, but also that had workplace practices internally that support the statement we were trying to write,” she says. “Why is there a sense of urgency? Black Lives Matter will mean the same thing tomorrow as it does in one month, and if we rush to throw the words on the ground without having intentionality in our process and our partners, we will be going against what we’re trying to say.”

[Photo: courtesy Justin Garrett Moore]
The mural itself was completed on July 3. Each of its three words was designed by a different artist—Sophia Dawson, Tijay Mohammed, and Patrice Payne—and painted on the street in partnership with the local muralist collective TATS CRU and a youth arts nonprofit called Thrive Collective. All the people and organizations involved were selected for their alignment with the anti-racist principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with a careful balance of genders, sexual orientations, and religious backgrounds.

[Photo: courtesy Justin Garrett Moore]
The mural was also supported technically and financially by what Moore calls allies—mostly white architecture and design firms “who understood that they had a role and agency and resources to amplify the voices of members in the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says.

It’s important that predominantly white fields such as architecture and urban planning participate in these kinds of projects, says WXY architectural designer Jhordan Channer, who was also involved in coordinating the mural project. And it’s particularly relevant for the type of work they do.

“Very often, people making decisions about what goes on the street or what building goes up, they’re not really aware of issues facing members of the community that they’re putting things on the streets in,” he says. “So as far as taking time with this process, it’s something that I definitely think needs to happen in the wider urbanism conversation.” This kind of process may represent a new way of engaging in the design of spaces within communities, Channer argues.

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“I mean, it’s a mural, but it could be like a paradigm for urbanism as a whole.”

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