Wednesday, June 19, 2019

New Helen Keller Mural Lighting The Way in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

The Ascan Avenue LIRR underpass is now a historic passageway, with the “Tribute To Ascan Avenue & Forest Hills Gardens” mural on the east wall, completed in 2017, and the “Helen Keller Forest Hills Tribute” mural, completed on the west wall on June 14. For many local residents and visitors who observed the dedicated and humorous LIRR crew installing the mural within a couple of hours, it was a historic moment. They stood proudly in memory of Keller, an advocate, author, and lecturer who persevered in her mission to remove stigmas associated with sight and hearing disorders despite being blind and deaf.

From 1917 to 1938, Helen Keller resided in a 7-room house, along with her teacher and closest companion “Miracle Worker” Anne Sullivan Macy and her secretary Polly Thomson. Today it is home to The Reform Temple of Forest Hills at 71-11 112th Street. 

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, & Polly Thomson's house, 71-11 112th St, Courtesy of Michael Perlman
Helen Keller inside her home, Courtesy of Susanna & Robert Hof
The 48-foot by 4-foot mural on preservation-friendly panels, was designed by Crisp from Australia and Praxis from Columbia, and developed by this columnist. It also became a reality due to the partnership with lead sponsor Council Member Karen Koslowitz, Queens Economic Development Corporation, and The Reform Temple of Forest Hills among local organizations, restaurants, shops, and residents who served as benefactors. 

Helen Keller & dog Sieglinde in bottom row, Anne Sullivan Macy & Polly Thomson in top row, Courtesy of the Hof family
The mural features a hand touching Braille, Helen Keller’s portrait and profile view, her pets, her demolished house, an equal rights voting box, and her feature on a 15-cent stamp with Macy. Her voice comes alive through two of her many quotes, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision” and “The millions of blind eyes must be opened.” Her spirit initiates much light through a plaque designed in collaboration with Continental Photo, which features her local to international accomplishments, quotes, signature, and photos. 

Muralists Praxis & Crisp painting a Helen Keller mural panel, Photo by Michael Perlman
The mural was painted at The Reform Temple on June 12 and June 13, and the public had the opportunity to have a sneak peek and hear several presentations at two “Helen Keller Comes Home” events. Guest speakers shared valuable insights, discussing her history and the importance of contributing. 

Helen Keller Comes Home guest speaker panel, Day 1, Photo by Michael Perlman

Helen Keller Comes Home Day 1 attendees, Reform Temple of Forest Hills holding Helen Keller plaque & photos, Photo by Alvin Callo
Helen Keller Comes Home, Day 2 panel & guests, Photo by Alvin Callo

Teamwork was essential for every aspect of the project. Transporting the mural panels from the temple to Ascan Avenue nearly did not transpire in time, until Home Depot donated their services. Home Depot Assistant Manager Christina Strongilos said, “A mural commemorating Helen Keller was installed in Forest Hills, thanks to the Glendale Home Depot which came to the rescue when there was no other way to get the mural panels there. A great job to our very own department heads Fredy and Drew who made it happen!” 

Home Depot dept heads Drew & Fredy load Braille mural panel on flatbed, Photo by Michael Perlman
Helen Keller mural fans & benefactors
Reform Temple congregant Barry Joseph co-founded Girl Scout Troop 04281 last February, which consists of fourth and fifth graders who meet at the temple. “This season, they are working on a badge to learn more about their neighborhood and create something to teach others. They came up with the idea of creating Helen Keller playing cards that could be shared with people who came to the mural painting events at the temple. I was really proud of them for doing something to teach others about local history that was also connected to art and human rights.” 

LIRR staff displays Helen Keller mural panels, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Murals are not just artwork, but at their best tell a story,” said congregant Barry Wollner. “The Helen Keller story is worth telling and those who know her story will reflect on her life. Parents and their children will walk by the mural, and it will encourage discussion and result in a visit to the library to learn more about her life.” 

LIRR crew along with Crisp & Michael Perlman
The temple’s Rabbi Mark Kaiserman organizes the annual “Helen Keller Shabbat of Inclusion” featuring a guest speaker facing challenges but permits will power to lead the way. “The mural offers a real artistic and social benefit to Forest Hills, and it is an honor to have Crisp and Praxis’ beautiful art fill our town. Helen Keller was not Jewish, but embodied the blessings and values of our faith and every faith; the idea of overcoming incredible obstacles and working together with the community and living her life to making it a better world. She chose to become an ambassador across the planet, traveling places that many of us would never dream of, to reach out and inspire people.”

Rene David Alkalay, who contributed on behalf of Red Pipe Cafe and Genesis Society, said “I hope we can continue to maintain growth through the arts and find ways to communicate with one another.”

On behalf of benefactor West Side Tennis Club, archivist Bea Hunt explained, “West Side came to Forest Hills in 1913, four years before Helen Keller. She had friends in the neighborhood including the Marsh family who were Club members.” Hunt is determined to further research if Helen Keller ever visited the Club.

James Ng represented benefactor Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society and called it an “honor to participate.” “I like to volunteer to make sure our history is preserved, since if you lose it once, it’s lost forever. When I watched the movie ‘Miracle Worker,’ the actress who played her was Patty Duke, who was born in Elmhurst. Also, I worked for a company that sold American Sign Language interpreting services to hospitals, so in a way, Helen Keller provided me with that avenue of work.”

Alexa Arecchi, Chief of Staff for Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi stated, “Helen Keller is truly the embodiment of what you can achieve when you persevere and don’t let people get you down or tell you otherwise. I am sure it would have been easier if she resigned to what many thought would be her fate – life in an asylum, but she knew that she was destined for more. That is a mindset, where we can all take our daily lives to achieve what we want. Hopefully when people pass the mural, they will be inspired and feel the same things.”

On behalf of the Queens EDC, tourism director Rob MacKay explained, “Whenever anyone hears that Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills, it will create pride. Hopefully it will become instagramable, since many people pass by murals and take photos and get the word out for free on the internet.”

Benefactors Rob Hof and his wife Susanna Hof of Terrace Sotheby’s International Realty were in attendance. He shared his family photos featuring Helen Keller. “My mother’s family was geographically proximate to Helen Keller’s house in a home where the John Alden building stands today. My mother and her siblings would walk from PS 3 to home, and would have milk and cookies daily with Helen. My grandparents were also dear friends. They were all members of the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills across the street from the Reform Temple. As a young child and into the sixties, my grandmother would read letters from dear Helen to my siblings and I. Many stories always had the characteristics of gentleness, wisdom, and progressive ideas.” Rob’s maternal grandfather was Robert E. Marsh, VP of Cord Meyer Development Company, who helped secure Keller’s house. Rob added, “Helen nicknamed her house ‘castle on the marsh.’” 

Helen Keller, Courtesy of Queens Community Board 6
 “Like Helen Keller, I am deaf-blind,” signed Lesley Silva-Kopec. “Deaf-blindness has a wide spectrum of hearing and vision loss. I have Usher syndrome, which is genetic. My transition from deaf to deaf-blind was difficult. It took many years to embrace myself as a deaf-blind person. When I accepted my deaf-blindness, my burden eventually lifted off my shoulder and I felt free. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy and that people are 100 percent accepting and kind. For the most part people are helpful, but I still get the looks, since I am sighted and I use a white cane. My cane helps me see what I may not see due to the blind spots and the dark areas. I also have two wonderful dogs that help me. My husband is also deaf-blind. We still experience oppression, but have to stay positive and support each other.” She then explained, “What the city lacks is the Support Service Provider (SSP), also known as a sighted guide. I am currently working with the Mayor’s Office for people with disabilities to have SSP, so they can have autonomy life. It serves as an extra pair of eyes, and is helpful for activities that may not be safe for deaf-blind people.”

She continued, “I am so touched that Helen Keller was chosen to be painted on the Ascan Avenue LIRR underpass. It is a place where I walk with my dogs, so it’s going to make my walk extra special. “ 

“I brought my niece today, since she really didn’t know anything about Helen Keller,” said Leslie Brown, Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce President. She explained, “On 72nd between 110th and Queens Boulevard was the Seeing Eye Dog Foundation, where dogs were training. There was a cornerstone that read, ‘The house that love built – Helen Keller.’” Then the house was demolished. “My mother wanted my sister and I to search through the rubble and find the cornerstone.”

Benefactor Helen Day, VP of Richmond Hill Historical Society said, “It is fabulous to bring Helen Keller back to life and create a special remembrance of where she lived for so many years. She was a person on the world stage, and to come from so far away to a great city of the world and become a part of this great community really needs to be remembered.”

Muralists Praxis & Crisp with historian & mural developer Michael Perlman, Photo by Linda Perlman

Helen Keller's quote & signature, Feb 24, 1920

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