Artists Use NYCHA Scaffolding as Canvas

Tipu Alam, The Astoria Project, located at 4-03 Astoria Boulevard, Astoria Houses, Queens. Photo by Paul Katcher.

By Iryna Shkurhan | 

A city-wide art program that gave artists the opportunity to transform scaffolding at public housing sites into community-specific murals came to an end last week.

ArtBridge’s City Artists Corps: Bridging the Divide program was started ten months ago in partnership with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as the city recovered from the height of the pandemic. Selected artists had a paid opportunity to create an outdoor public facing installation while also engaging and cultivating inspiration from community members in the process. 

Since 2009, the ArtBridge program has given artists across the five boroughs an opportunity to install large street-level art installations in unutilized construction fencing. According to their website, artists have installed 60,000 square feet of street art since.  

The completion of the Bridging the Divide program was celebrated on April 19 at Manhattan’s Taft Houses. The event honored the artistic contribution of 59 artists to NYCHA sites across the city, as well as the stories and of the public housing residents that were represented in the art. 

“Bridging the Divide shows what’s possible when our artists and residents are empowered to collaborate and create toward a shared vision,” said Cultural Affairs Commissioner, Laurie Cumbo, who attended the celebration. “It also shows how innovative use of our public spaces can turn something like a drab green construction shed into a canvas for artist-led collective creation, and a platform to engage and inspire New Yorkers.”

Prior to designing their murals, artists led workshops on site where they engaged with the community to include them in the process. For two Queens artists, the art created by children who attended their workshops was incorporated directly in their murals. Each mural was unique to the site, with the community it represents in mind. 

“Each NYCHA site is like a little neighborhood. It’s so different so everyone’s artwork came out differently,” said Kiki Bencosme, an artist who transformed scaffolding at the Pomonok Houses in Flushing. “But at the same time, there was a strong sense of joy and community in all of the artwork.” 

During the pandemic, Bencosme was searching online for an outlet for her art when she came across the program and applied for the residency. She chose the Pomonok Houses, just blocks from where she grew up in Briarwood, as the site of her nature-inspired mural. 

Over the course of several months, she attended workshops that discussed the art of mural making — a first time artistic endeavor for Bencosme. Eventually she led her own workshops at the site where she gave children the space and opportunity to create their own artwork. 

“My goal as an artist is to use my art as a form of social justice and community engagement,” said Bencosme in an interview with the Queens Ledger. “I just wanted the artwork to exist there. And if it could change one person’s day, then I did my job.”

Kiki Bencosme, Dimelo Cantando, previously located at 70-30 Parsons Boulevard & 154-05 71st Avenue, Pomonok Houses, Queens. Photo by Paul Katcher.

The title of her piece, Dimelo Cantando, which translates to “tell it to me singing” was inspired by her Dominican roots. It is a common greeting phrase of endearment that Bencosme would often hear elders use while growing up.

“It was important for me to have that title in Spanish to kind of be like, this is representing us, you know, we are not living with everybody else,” said Bencosme. “We are here every single day fighting adversity.”

Close to 90 percent of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents are Black or Hispanic, according to city data. And communities of color in NYC were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

Bencosme’s mural, printed and laid over scaffolding, contains an array of florals against a blue background which she designed on Adobe Illustrator. Several of the flowers were lifted from art that children who attended her workshop created.

The mural was taken down this past March, after being up in the Pomonok Houses since July, 2022. She said that installation was a pivotal moment for her as she recounted childhood memories just blocks away from her installation. And although she never resided in NYCHA housing, she would often visit close friends and family who did. 

“My inner child was just radiating,” said Bencosme when she first saw her work installed in person. “And I was able to connect with kids growing up in the area who grew up like me. So it was just a full circle moment.”

Kiki Bencosme leading an art workshop with children living in the Pomonok Houses. Photo by Destiny Mata.

She says that it was bittersweet when the piece came down. 

Tipu Alam, another resident artist, installed an layered mural at the Astoria Houses last July. His work, which is still standing, features children photographed during his community workshop holding up letters that spell out Astoria with neighborhood spots collaged in the background.

Another side of the scaffolding shows the children photographed wearing various masks, and standing alongside themselves with their mask in hand. He says that the inspiration for the masks came during the Halloween season, when he led the workshop, as well as cultures around the world that hold masks to a high regard. 

“It was amazing actually,” said Alam about the reaction that the children had when they saw themselves in his mural. “They were very happy.”

Tipu Alam, The Astoria Project, located at 4-03 Astoria Boulevard, Astoria Houses, Queens. Photo by Paul Katcher.

Alam, an immigrant from Bangladesh, chose Astoria as his site after living in the neighborhood for four years and having his work displayed in a local art gallery for two years. He is no stranger to the art of mural painting and has dotted various restaurants across Queens and The Bronx with their own extensive murals. 

Both artists say that the program was also a big financial help during the pandemic, and believe that they were fairly compensated for their work. They pointed out that fair compensation is rare in their line of work. 

“Everybody walked away, just feeling appreciated as an artist,” said Bencosme. “But also fulfilled that they were able to give back to their own communities.”

Flooding upgrades at NYCHA properties

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has announced a new joint program with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to improve drainage systems and reduce flooding at housing developments throughout the city.
Costing $29 million in total, the new projects are aimed at bringing climate resiliency to a number of vulnerable NYCHA properties, particularly those that are close to the water or other high-risk flooding locations.
“Funding these ongoing upgrades at NYCHA properties will improve the quality of life for residents while also reducing neighborhood flooding and any sewer overflow into local waterways,” said DEP commissioner Vincent Sapienza.
Work is set to begin immediately at a number of locations in Brooklyn, including Gowanus Houses, Boulevard Houses, Linden Houses, and Van Dyke Houses. Other locations throughout the borough are set to receive upgrades by the end of next year, including Kingsborough Houses and Seth Low Houses.
Typically, NYCHA is responsible for drainage at each of its properties. However, DEP saw the opportunity to capture significant stormwater across the portfolio of NYCHA properties, which would ease pressure on neighborhood sewers and reduce overflows into local waterways.
DEP engineers survey the sites and green infrastructure installations are designed to meet the specific needs. That could include permeable concrete sidewalks, subsurface infiltration chambers, and rain gardens, keeping water from entering the sewer system, where it could lead to flooding.
“Infrastructure needs don’t discriminate based on agency purview, and I hope the city continues to build on these types of partnerships as we work to tackle the growing challenges of climate change and water management,” said Borough President Eric Adams.

Queensbridge residents sue NYCHA

Residents of Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City filed a lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) this past week.
The suit seeks to force NYCHA to fix hazardous living conditions that plague the public housing complex, including asbestos, lead paint, mold, leaks, and backed-up trash shoots.
Residents argue the conditions became even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent statewide stay-at-home orders. The suit also charges NYCHA with failing to conduct regular COVID-19 cleanings throughout the buildings in the largest public housing project in the Western Hemisphere.
“Any type of repairs that need to be done in my house, I have to wait forever to get them done,” said Marilyn Keller, a 58-year-old resident. “I put the ticket in, then NYCHA calls me back to tell me the date they are coming.
“So I prepare for the appointment, take everything out of the closet and cabinets, and ask for the day off from work but then they never come,” she continued. “They are a bunch of no-shows.”
Many of the tenants suing are older residents, including 72-year-old Pamela Wheeler.
“I am tired of living with mice, roaches, waterbugs, lack of heat, holes in my walls and sink, waterlogged and rotting cabinets, and many more repair issues that are a threat to my health and safety and an affront to my dignity,” Wheeler said. “NYCHA never repairs anything when I file a ticket, and it is so frustrating.”
The residents are working with the Justice For All Coalition, an organization that offers legal assistance to community groups in Astoria, Long Island City, and other parts of western Queens.
Residents then sought legal representation from Queens Legal Services, which filed the lawsuit on their behalf.
“For too long, NYCHA residents have suffered uninhabitable conditions due to neglect and lack of funding,” said Robert Sanderman, senior staff attorney at the Queens Legal Services Tenant Rights Coalition, who is representing the tenants. “There is little incentive for NYCHA to complete the repairs since the city will not record violations or pursue civil penalties against NYCHA for the numerous violations of the housing maintenance code.
“A great number of NYCHA residents are people of color who are also essential workers and are at high risk of health complications due to COVID-19,” he added. “These NYCHA residents are demanding systemic changes in the way they are neglected and ignored on account of their racial, social and economic status.”

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