Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Forest Hills History Mural Embraced By Community

Street artists Praxis & Crisp with Coordinator Michael Perlman, A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens Mural
Adding Forest Hills alongside the Ascan Backus Homestead & Mr. & Mrs. Sage, Photo by Michael Perlman
By Michael Perlman

On April 2 to April 4, Forest Hills residents and commuters witnessed the transformation of a blank canvas into a work of art at a long-neglected underpass on Ascan Avenue. With the title “A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens,” Forest Hills’ newest mural was born. 

After observing the community’s positive response last summer to the Ramones mural on Continental Avenue by the internationally-known street artists “Crisp” and “Praxis,” natives of Australia and Columbia, this columnist appointed them. The new mural bears homage to influential founding parties of the Forest Hills Gardens, set alongside a Gardens’ street lantern which depicts the neighborhood’s classic two trees and a fountain motif, and also sheds light on a flourishing community. Also resurrected is the Backus family homestead, better known today as Walgreens on Queens Boulevard at 69th Road. 

The underpass now features profiles of financier and railroad executive Russell Sage and philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who amassed her husband’s fortune and helped establish the Russell Sage Foundation, which purchased 142 acres for the Forest Hills Gardens in 1909. Adjacently profiled is “King Farmer” Ascan Backus, regarded as the most successful 19th century commercial farmer in the northeast, when Forest Hills was known as Whitepot prior to 1906. Also honored are Forest Hills Gardens’ principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury and urban planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Among the mural’s goals is to establish a face behind the names of frequented destinations including Russell Sage JHS 190, Olivia Park, and Ascan Avenue.

“The support and positive feedback from the local community that passed by while we were painting was overwhelming,” said Crisp. “It was lovely seeing its impact on all ages, from toddlers pointing things out to their parents, all the way up to a 96-year-old reflecting on his time in the area.” One fan stopped his car and later returned to share a photo of Ascan Backus II, Ascan Backus’ grandson. A young child felt passionate enough to ask questions, relay praise, and recommend highlighting the underpass’ “1909” marker, which has been pursued in the mural. Crisp added, “History is easily forgotten, so we educated people about their contributions to the area, and many loved learning about local history visually through the mural.” 

Keeping "King Farmer" Ascan Backus' memory alive!

Local residents and businesses helped shape the content of the mural and contributed nearly $4,000 since December 2016. Organization sponsors were the West Side Tennis Club, Ridgewood Savings Bank, Trylon Vet Care, Exo Café, Ripe, Knish Nosh, London Lennie’s, Belle Arti Center for the Arts, Oliloli Studio, Aigner Chocolates, Banter, Portofino, and Cipollina Gourmet. Fundraisers were held at Knish Nosh, Roast n Co, and La Boulangerie; the latter two restaurants where Marvel and DC Comics artist John Stanisci sold prints of his work and sketched characters upon request to raise funds. Additionally, Century 21 Department Store provided gift cards and wreaths for donors during the holiday season.

“The West Side Tennis Club is proud to have supported this project, particularly during our 125th anniversary,” said Bea Hunt, WSTC, Co-chair, 125th Anniversary Committee. “The mural is a brilliant combination of the people instrumental in creating this community and unique historic architectural elements, and it will raise appreciation of these great pioneers and our rich history.”

Fan Susan Weinstein, a Forest Hills resident, who is an avid walker and history buff said, “It’s a pleasure to learn new things and keep an eye on our quality of life. Now people will learn more about why the Forest Hills Gardens was founded and what it was founded as.”

Another Forest Hills resident, Waice Shah said, “At Russell Sage JHS, I never realized who Russell Sage was, but I always knew that if my school or any street is named after someone, 9 out of 10 times you can do your research and be wowed by their accomplishments.”

Mickey Leigh, brother of the late Joey Ramone, even stopped by. He chuckled and said, “I much prefer a mural than an abstract design of bird droppings.” As a notable himself, he pointed to the wall and said, “I am working my way towards obtaining the status of these accomplished people.”

Nearby residents also praised the mural. Kew Gardens resident Seth Welins said, “The Forest Hills Gardens is gorgeous and leads into an interesting shopping area. I would often walk through the underpass very quickly, but the finished product will encourage me to slow down a bit and admire the artwork. It’s also an educational resource and a win-win for everyone.”

Richmond Hill resident Shamim Arman views the mural from an artistic perspective and as a representation of a diverse community linking yesterday to today. “If we have the space, art is the best way of providing information to many people. You really have to think in detail that not anyone can do this, and I don’t think any other group features as much about a diverse community than artists.”

Fundraising hosts emphasized the importance of collaborating and contributing. La Boulangerie co-owner François Danielo explained, “As I like to say, Forest Hills is a small village, and part of it is to interact and help each other. Those responsible are creating a soul for our village, and it’s important to differentiate ourselves from the rest of NYC.” Hichem Ammous, co-owner of Roast n Co said, “Partnerships are a great tool to make the community stronger and well known, and we feel proud that we participated.” 

Multi-generational fans come together

Recreating a Forest Hills Gardens historic streetlamp, shedding light on Forest Hills' past & future
A similar version of this feature appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger column: 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Forest Hills History Mural On The Rise!

Crisp & Praxis painting the Forest Hills History Mural, Apr 2, 2017, Ascan Ave underpass, Photo by project coordinator Michael Perlman
Project coordinator Michael Perlman posing at Crisp & Praxis Forest Hills History Mural, Apr 2, 2017, Ascan Ave underpass

"A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens" mural rendering by Crisp & Praxis

"A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens" mural rendering by Crisp & Praxis

"A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens" mural rendering by Crisp & Praxis