"SPIRIT OF EAST HARLEM"
- (Located on 104th Street on the corner of Lexington Avenue in El Barrio NYC)
by Sarah McNaughton and Elizabeth Harball (courtesy of Hope Community Inc.)
It was the summer of 1974. New York artist Manny Vega, today known for his public mosaics and murals, was 18. He had recently graduated from high school and was trying to decide whether to go to college. Vega knew he had an artistic voice, but he didn’t yet know what to do with it. Then, while kicking around East Harlem, something on East 104th Street and Lexington Avenue caught his attention:
“I would walk by on 104th Street and this guy was on a pull-up scaffold by himself,” Vega says. “A tiny, wooden, crickity-crackety scaffold.” Armed with oil paints and a brush, the man was meticulously creating a mural on the side of a four-story residential building.
Vega walked by the mural every day or so to see it progress. Slowly, recognizable faces started to emerge from the wall – people who lived in the neighborhood, even people who lived in the building. “But it was unusual because he was this Caucasian, lanky white guy painting this Puerto Rican, black barrio thing, with a lot of soul, a lot of ‘esencia’ — with a lot of essence — as though he had been living in the neighborhood all along.”
Vega, fascinated, decided to ask if he could join the project. “One day, I screamed up at him. I said, ‘Hey, white boy! Give me a job!’ He came down from the scaffold and he asked me, ‘What, do you paint?’ “I said, ‘I can learn…’”
The artist’s name was Hank Prussing. Vega became his apprentice and helped Prussing complete one of New York City’s most iconic murals: “The Spirit of East Harlem.”
Looming above a rapidly changing neighborhood, “The Spirit of East Harlem” represents a rougher yet more romantic time in East Harlem’s history. People who look up at it can imagine what it was like to wander East Harlem in the 1970s.
For the full story on the Uptowner.org's website click here.