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The Pathfinder Mural: Public Political Art in the Far West Village

“The pathfinder mural is a historic political and artistic landmark now nearing completion on a six-story wall of Pathfinder publishing house in New York’s Greenwich Village. The centerpiece of the mural is a giant printing press churning out sheets of paper and books adorned with the portraits of outstanding working class and revolutionary leaders whose speeches and writings Pathfinder promotes.” These are the opening lines of a short documentary called “Pathfinder Mural.” Located at 410 West Street, between Charles Lane and Charles Street, this mural graced the West Side Highway — and the world — from 1989 until 1996, when it was removed. 

On September 7, 1988, the New York Times wrote about the mural: “An all-star cast of the international left… is appearing in a new but very old-fashioned political wall painting. The huge work, known as ”The Pathfinder Mural,” is nearing completion on the side of a building at West and Charles Streets in Greenwich Village, and its creators are braced for controversy.”

Multifaceted Controversy

And controversial it was. The New York Times chronicled several neighborhood complaints based on the fact that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which commissioned the mural on their Pathfinder Press building put up their scaffolding without a permit. Administrative details aside, political conflict also arose. Pat Buchanan attacked it in the Washington Times as “a six-story shrine to communism, a Marxist Mount Rushmore in Greenwich Village.”

More disruptive to the project was the conflict between the SWP itself and the artist, Mike Alewitz, whose vision and methods were in conflict with the Press and their plans for the mural. He was eventually removed from the project, and others finished the project. 

Mural Makers

The ambitious project gathered 80 artists from 20 different countries, including Argentina, Canada, Iran, New Zealand, Nicaragua and South Africa. The artists all traveled to West Street to add their pieces to this collaborative artwork. Having people from each country and movement paint the portraits of their own leaders was part of the plan by the Pathfinder Press and the Socialist Workers Party, to show how movements for liberation, worker’s rights, women’s rights, and more were connected beyond the borders between countries. 

Mike Alewitz, a politically active artist who conceived the mural project and directed it, envisioned something “done in the strident visual rhetoric of 1930’s Social Realism,” the New York Times stated. Alewitz said: ”I’m critical of the New York art scene. I find that much of the art taught in the schools and produced through the gallery system reflects the values of the cynical and confused middle class.”

Whether you agree with Alewitz or not, it’s true that the Pathfinder Mural is incredibly clear in its message. Activists and political figures included Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Karl Marx, and Mother Jones. The press itself printed Fidel Castro’s words, “The truth must not be only the truth — it must also be told.” 

The mural remained on the wall of the Pathfinder Building for seven years, attracting visitors, tour groups, and press coverage from across North America and around the world. Despite the controversy, many supported and admired the mural, including workers and neighborhood residents.

Losing the Pathfinder Mural

By 1996 the mural had faded and the underlying surface had crumbled beyond repair from the effects of sun and weathering. The wall it covered had suffered similarly and was badly in need of structural repair. And so the mural was permanently removed in order to repair cracks in the building’s exterior wall.

Though the mural was short-lived, it was memorable, and much documentation exists. Not long after the mural was removed the building itself was sold and demolished, ironically to make way for the multi-million dollar condos of the third and final “Meier Tower” built along West Street between West 11th and Charles Street. This transformed the Greenwich Village waterfront from warehouses, factories, garages, and modest residences occupied largely by artists (Westbeth) and civil servants (West Village Houses) to some of the priciest and most sought-after real estate in New York.

The Meier towers along West Street, multi-million dollar condos designed by Richard Meier.  The third one, farthest to the right, replaced the Pathfinder Press building. 

Adding to the irony, the tower which replaced the Pathfinder Press would become known for the first $1 million+ studio apartment in New York, and possibly the world (which may be less uncommon now, but in the early 2000s was a shocking emblem of escalating real estate prices and the dramatic changes in the Far West Village).

The documentary mentioned earlier goes quite deep into each artist and their connection to the historic figure they portrayed on the mural. Watch it here: 

For close-up details of the mural portraits, click here.

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