Unexpected cleaning of graffiti-covered tunnel spurs controversy in Washington Heights

City officials quietly painted over a graffiti-covered tunnel in Washington Heights over the weekend — drawing backlash from residents and community leaders who accused them of “whitewashing” the neighborhood’s culture.

The surprise scrubbing came Friday morning when Department of Transportation workers removed the colorful street art and public murals that have long lined the walls of the 191st Street pedestrian tunnel. News about the finished product triggered widespread scandal.

“What happened here is just a slap in the face to the community,” said Luiggy Gomez, an event producer and lifelong resident of Washington Heights. “They erased history.”

The tunnel is covered in white after the city is painted over the artwork.

Photo courtesy of Phillipe Chatelain

The unusual corridor, which runs deep underground for three blocks between Broadway and the 1 station on St Nicholas Avenue, has been the subject of growing concerns – and media attention – over homelessness, drug use and other grim conditions in recent weeks.

But while city officials had discussed adding more services and lights to the passage, those talks did not include plans to whitewash the “iconic” walls, according to Councilwoman Carmen De La Rosa, who represents the area.

“No one ever asked them to paint the tunnel. That was never the source of the problem,” De La Rosa told Gothamist. “The community felt ownership of the art and culture that is expressed there.”

Vincent Barone, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, which controls the tunnel, did not say what prompted the cleanup, but noted that the agency planned to create a new art project in the tunnel.

“We look forward to working closely with the local community and local elected officials on a project that celebrates the culture and diversity that makes New York so special,” he said.

The 1,000-foot tunnel has long been a contentious piece of street infrastructure. Unlike other pedestrian corridors, it is managed by the city rather than the MTA, and is technically a public street. That designation has prompted decades of bureaucratic conflict, as well as complaints of neglect directed at city agencies.

The tunnel as it looked in 2015, after the city-sponsored mural project.

Jen Chung/Gothamist

After residents raised similar charges in 2015, the DOT sponsored a tunnel beautification project, paying five artists $15,000 each to brighten up the walls with murals. At the time, a city commissioner compared the final product to “Lascaux,” a network of caves containing priceless prehistoric art.

Over the years, graffiti artists have added their own tags to the walls, creating an ad hoc canvas that has been featured on street art tours and the film In the Heights.

“It was a unique piece of art that contained a collection of graffiti that was constantly evolving and reinventing itself,” noted Phillipe Chatelain, a Washington Heights resident who said he was shocked to encounter the empty walls Saturday morning .

Meanwhile, Andrea von Bujdoss, one of the artists who painted the original murals, told Gothamist that she was glad to see the DOT starting over, noting that the original murals had been subjected to “pure vandalism.”

“I think it’s unfortunate in some ways that there wasn’t a proper budget to maintain the work,” she added.

For some, the removal was reminiscent of another recent DOT controversy earlier this month, when the agency removed a road sign in Williamsburg that celebrated the area’s Puerto Rican heritage. While the sign was quickly replaced, the episode ignited widespread anger against city officials, who were accused of encouraging gentrification and displacement in the area.

De La Rosa said the tunnel controversy was symbolic of similar fears in Washington Heights.

“People feel this intensity that we’re losing our home, we’re losing our community, and now we’re losing a piece of our history,” she said.

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