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The Biggest Mural in NYC, On View, For Now, at City-As-School

“I always hope my art inspires people to be nice human beings.” says artist Magda Love. “The world is really fucked up; so if you have the power to create something positive and make people feel good, why not?” As luck would have it, Love does have that power, and she has deployed it, alongside efforts by fellow artist Eduardo Kobra, to enrich our cityscape with the largest mural in town, a five-story tall polychromatic celebration of the generative power of women and of the immigrant foundations of the city. The mural, located on Hudson Street between West Houston Street and Clarkson Street, decorates the western wall of City-As-School High School, the oldest alternative public high school in the city. Half of the mural will be obstructed from view upon completion of a planned affordable housing project at 388 Hudson Street. This makes now an opportune time to both swing by to admire the work and revisit the improbable story that led to the creation of one of the few remaining wall murals in Lower Manhattan, where such examples of public art used to be commonplace, courtesy of initiatives like Cityarts Workshop, but where they no longer are.


City-As-School was founded in 1972 by Frederick J. Koury and Rick Safran with the idea of using the city itself as the main basis of the students’ curriculum. The founders’ efforts formed part of a progressive reform movement in education that swept the country during the 70s and 80s, popularizing the Deweyan school-without-borders model. From the start, City-As-School operated as a “transfer school,” a school designed to re-engage students who have struggled in conventional education programs. The alternative offered by City-As-School relies on internships as a primary vehicle for learning. Students spend between sixteen and thirty-two hours per week working for their choice from among several hundred organizations across the city that offer positions in coordination with the school (one of them being Village Preservation). Students might find an internship at the Bronx Zoo, the Federal Trade Commission, Lincoln Center, local congressional offices, or any of a wide range of businesses, galleries, museums, studios, and universities. They then work with the school’s internship coordinators to develop their learning plan and to conceptualize and document their work experience.

City-As-School’s approach stems from the belief that active learning offers students a superior means to develop a sense of where their interests lie and of who they want to be. It is rare to find an educational program that so deliberately places students’ self-realization (as opposed to knowledge mastery) as its primary goal. City-As-School is currently the only public school in the city with experiential learning as its focus and the only one where students can earn academic credits toward graduation through their internships. This has made it an increasingly popular choice and allowed the school to grow from fifteen students and a staff of four to almost seven hundred students and ninety teachers and administrators. Notable alumni include Adam Horvitz (a.k.a. Ad Rock) of the Beastie Boys, rapper and actor Dante Terrell Smith (a.k.a. Mos Def), artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and recording artist Patty Smyth.

Magda Love

The school’s music and arts department, MAD Academy, hews to the institution’s philosophy, allowing students to develop their own experience-based curriculum and work portfolio under the guidance of professionals in the creative industry. New York-based Argentine muralist Magda Love started working as a mentor in the department, after a student she met encouraged her to reach out to the MAD Academy. After a few years doing so, she came up with the idea of doing a mural on the school’s enormous and bare west-facing wall, which was prominently visible, because it faced a block-long, city-owned lot along Hudson Street that had been vacant during the decades-long, underground construction of the $6 billion Third Water Tunnel that will supply drinking water to New York City. That entire project, the largest capital construction project in NYC history, began in 1970 and is expected to conclude in 2032. While, as conceived, the mural may not have been quite as challenging as the sixty-year effort to build a water tunnel from upstate New York to New York City to guarantee a safe and reliable supply of water, the mural’s scale, the extensive involvement of municipal bureaucracies, and the necessary coordination among multiple agencies and entities made the art project pretty challenging in its own right.

Love collaborated with students over the course of several months to develop a design. Then, days after the painting began in 2016, the project became entangled in a morass of red tape. It would take about two years and twenty-five approvals from the Department of Education and the Department of Environmental Protection before the work could proceed. And even when the permits were secured, funding remained an obstacle. Eventually, this too was overcome. Along the way, internationally renowned Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra approached the school, hoping to contribute to the project by working with students on a mural on the wall just south of Love’s. With Kobra’s help, the murals would now cover the whole façade, along the entire block.

Eduardo Kobra

The mural was completed in 2018 and “revealed” on November 5 of that year. At 200,000 square feet, it was and is the largest mural in New York City. Love’s side draws from the aesthetic of folkloric Mexican art and features a woman engulfed by brightly-hued exotic flora, bio-psychedelic imagery, and celestial forms. Kobra’s consists of multi-colored, geometric, painted tiles that depict, in traditional garb, immigrants who entered the city through Ellis Island. Students who collaborated in this process, many of whom have painted murals of their own throughout the school building, got to experience firsthand the work that goes into solving the problems posed by projects of this scale, as well as the sweat and dedication that goes into giving voice to one’s inspiration.

The mural has been tremendously popular with students and with the local community. Unfortunately, just five years after its completion, the end might be in sight for at least the northern part of it, the part created under the direction of Magda Love. The longtime plan had been to build a park on the lot adjacent to the school upon completion of the section of the Third Water Tunnel that runs under it (a plan still in effect when the mural was planned and painted). Now that that section is done, however, local Community Board 2 has called for using the northern half of the site for affordable housing and indoor public recreation space; and the City has agreed (the southern half of the site, which cannot be built upon, because it has to maintain a permanent access way to the tunnel below, will contain public open space). The planning for the affordable housing and indoor public recreation space are progressing and will include a public “visioning” session on Tuesday, September 12 at 75 Morton Street from 5:45 to 8pm — learn more about the session here and about the planned project here. The session will allow the public to offer feedback on the size and scale of the planned development, as well as on the type of housing and type of public recreation facility to be built on the water tunnel site next to the school and mural.

student mural
student mural

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