For a modest mural in a schoolyard handball court in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, “Queens is the Future” is storied.
Artists and native New Yorkers Eve Biddle and Joshua Frankel painted the mural in 2007 when they lived in Long Island City. In their original version, the depiction of an elevated train served as a stand-in for Queens itself, the city’s most diverse borough. “There was a magic to the original design of a train lifting off to become a rocket,” Frankel told Hyperallergic in a joint interview with Biddle. (The married couple now splits their time between Brooklyn and upstate New York, where Biddle is co-founder of Wassaic Project.)
As the New Yorker reported in 2014, without the artists’ permission Sony Pictures “co-opted” the mural (as the artists put it) for a Spider-Man movie. An artist hired by Sony, working without permission from Biddle or Frankel, colored in their spare, open design deliberately meant to allow handballs — typically blue or black — to be seen clearly by kids in the yard. And Sony set Spidey at the center.
“When Sony added Spider-Man lifting the train, all that agency was lost; it was then about the neighborhood being rescued by a superhero,” Frankel said. And that was not the story either the artists or the neighborhood wanted to tell.
The mural soon fell into disrepair. “Right after Sony painted it, it started chipping off,” Frankel said. The artists postulate that the movie production designers did not research and test — as Biddle and Frankel had — which paints would withstand not just the baking sun, driving rain, and snowfall of New York City but also the bouncing balls of handball. “We visited handball courts all over New York City and spoke to the people who’d restored Keith Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’ mural, which is also on a handball court,” Biddle said. The artists tested and ultimately opted for an acrylic paint often used on ship hulls for exceptional durability.
In 2021, in the wake of a massive Jackson Heights fire, the Queens Long Distance Running Club, with Biddle’s and Frankel’s enthusiastic participation, used an image of the original mural on t-shirts for a benefit run to support the nearly 300 families who were injured or dislocated by the fire. The popularity of the t-shirts prompted the community, through I.S. 145 Principal Ivan Rodriguez, to request that the artists restore the mural to its original design.
Just as the couple was preparing to paint, an artist named Erick Teran, who is based in Jackson Heights but didn’t realize the restoration was underway, reached out to request permission to paint a mural on the blank flip side of the free-standing wall. Biddle and Frankel introduced Teran to the school’s leadership, which not only welcomed the artist, whose work has centered on cityscapes, to add his own mural, but hired him to fill in as a substitute art teacher last spring.
Both the restoration and the new mural were funded with help from the parent-teacher association of I.S. 145; the Jackson Heights Beautification Group; Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas; State Senator Jessica Ramos; Queens Museum board member and designer Angelo Baque of the fashion brand Awake NY; the commercial real estate company Project Queens; and Queensboro Restaurant, which has an ongoing grassroots donation campaign.
And both murals in the school yard of I.S. 145 will be celebrated on July 31 at a community-wide block party during the weekly Jackson Heights farmer’s market (9 am to noon).
These murals are among several others underway in Queens this season. Artist Zeehan Wazed, who has painted a handful of murals throughout the city, is at work on one at a mosque in Queens. And this weekend, artist Julia Chiang is completing two large-scale pieces — a 67-foot mural at the Rockaway Hotel + Spa and a 41-foot one at a senior home called the Rockaway Seagirt Residences. She designed both in a kind of multi-level mirroring, taking as inspiration palettes, textures, and patterns from multigenerational community art workshops she held where local students, families, and seniors made art inspired by Chiang’s work.
“A public art project has a powerful impact because of repeated viewing, unlike a painting you may see every so often in a museum,” Frankel said. He noted that there were adults at this week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for whom the original “Queens is the Future” was a daily touchstone of their childhoods.
The saga of the “Queens is the Future” mural demonstrated “how we collectively assert control over the shape of a city,” Frankel added, drawing parallels to the opera A Marvelous Order, premiering this fall, which he co-created about the battle between nemeses Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (with libretto by former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith).
Frankel added: “It’s about who gets to decide what gets built, what gets destroyed, and what gets preserved.”
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