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A Different Kind of Transit ‘Signal’ at Broadway-Lafayette

Deep below Broadway and Lafayette Street, in the passageway connecting the intersection’s namesake station with the Bleecker Street downtown platform, is an art installation that honors the communities who lived here centuries before the subway was even built.

Mel Chin, Signal, installed 1997. Photo by Rob Wilson courtesy of MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design.

“Signal” by Mel Chin, in collaboration with G. Peter Jemison, was installed when the entire station was renovated in 1997. The goal of the project, Chin told Brooklyn Rail in 2018, “was to insert the living cultural presence of First Nations peoples in the station named Broadway-Lafayette because Broadway was built over their original trail that was stopped by the Dutch fort wall” at modern-day Wall Street. That concept can be found all along the walls of the walkway, where the pattern of blue tiles based on wampum belts is placed in several locations onto a much larger field of white tiles that recall the artistic styles of Dutch settlers in early Manhattan. The design, which depict figures with arms outstretched to one another, sends the message that Native American nations are maintaining a strong presence in our state and continuing to extend peace within our communities.

At the base of five structural columns in this mezzanine area, Chin fashioned stainless-steel cones that feature patterns based on “Council Fire” badges, masonic symbols reimagined by 18th-century Iroquois blacksmiths. The cones light up when trains arrive, signaling passengers and re-creating the warm glow of campfires. Some of the tile patterns along nearby walls are shaped like rising smoke as if to highlight those “flames.”

Mel Chin (left) and G. Peter Jamison at a Rededication Ceremony for ‘Signal,’ May 13, 2018

The artwork is one of several key locations representative of New York’s contemporary Native American art movement in our neighborhoods. Jemison, a member of Heron Clan-Seneca, helped craft the station’s tile patterns and was a leader in that movement locally. He was also one of the first curators for the influential gallery at the American Indian Community House. In 1984, he co-curated the first comprehensive exhibition of photography by Native Americans in the United States when AICH was located at 164 Mercer Street, just south of Houston Street. The community center also called 842 Broadway at East 13th Street, a building no longer extant, home in the late 1980s. 

Learn more about the Native American art movement in our neighborhoods here.

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