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Washington Heights Graffiti Tunnel Completely whitewashed

The tunnel is now painted (photo by Molly Hein).

To emerge from the Washington Heights 191st Street subway station, the deepest in the city, riders of New York City’s 1 Train have two options: take the elevator or walk through a three-block-long tunnel. The long underground stretch has been a favorite spot for graffiti artists. The Department of Transportation (DOT), however, cleaned and sanitized this passageway on Friday, January 20th and painted its walls a drab, beige color, completely covering any graffiti.

Some residents now accuse the city of not consulting the community before they whitewash the tunnel.

Niria E. Leyva-Gutiérrez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), and District 20 Council Member Carmen De La Rosa said in a joint statement that they were informed of the paint job only after it had happened and decried the “continual lack of transparency” from city agencies. They also said that despite their calls to keep the tunnel safe and clean — it has become dimly lit, dirty, and littered with trash and needles — they had never advocated for the erasure of the art that was “emblematic of the tunnel.”

The tunnel in December 2022. It was completed a little more than a month ago (photo by Eric K. Washington).

The passageway serves a greater role in the neighborhood than simply providing an exit from subway stations. “If you’re older or you have a baby or a stroller, it’s a vital artery,” said Washington Heights resident Led Black, who runs the news outlet Uptown Collective. The tunnel connects Broadway with St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights, which he claimed is 18 stories higher.

Despite the tunnel’s necessity, it’s long been subject to city neglect. Black grew up in the 1980s and 90s and believed the tunnel was dangerous. Another neighbor, who preferred to remain anonymous, also claimed the same. “The tunnel wasn’t a place to be in and I never walked in it,” she told Hyperallergic,She also said that, although she occasionally scribbled on the walls with her friends, her first memories of actually using the device were in 2015, when the city launched a public graffiti initiative.

“Now we walk through it almost daily,” she said.

In 2014, DOT replaced the tunnel’s lighting fixtures, painted over the existing graffiti, and created a planNoMAA commissioned artists to paint the passageway, with $15,000 stipends. This led to an extensive mural project. Washington Heights resident, said that although there were concerns about the murals becoming a tourist attraction for street art and contributing to growing gentrification of the area, it was a welcome addition.

The city’s plan seemed to be a success, but Black lamented the lack of upkeep. “If you don’t clean that first tag when it goes up, it’s gonna go downhill from there,” he said.

The tunnel in 2015 after DOT commissioned artist to paint it (photo courtesy Doc Searls via Flickr)

Although the tunnel is no more associated with violent crime, it remains in disrepair. The longtime resident said the passageway isn’t as brightly lit as it used to be, and when it’s windy or rainy, water leaks in from the walls. Black also noted the needles that accumulate on the tunnel’s sides, which she captured for a January 2022. Uptown Collective post. The photo promptedDe La Rosa to press the city to clean up the passageway last winter.

Soon after, the tunnel was dirty again, a problem Black blamed on a bureaucratic “mish-mosh of agency” oversight that results in cleaning that is “more reactionary than a process.” (Unlike other subway passageways, this tunnel is under the supervision of the DOT rather than the MTA.)

A spokesperson for the agency directed HyperallergicTo statementsYdanis Rodriguez, NYC DOT Commissioner, made the announcement yesterday, January 23. Rodriguez said the agency is “planning to begin looking for potential artists” to redesign the 191st Street tunnel. “This is a priority for me because I understand the symbolic meaning behind this cultural mural,” he added.

In their joint statement, NoMAA’s Leyva-Gutiérrez and Council Member De La Rosa insisted that the city perform daily cleaning and maintenance and called on them to provide services for unhoused people who gather in the tunnel. They also urged DOT’s immediate engagement with the community to reinstall the 2015 public artwork project.

“As kids, we ourselves added our own graffiti tags in it and wrote messages,” the longtime Washington Heights resident said, adding that even now that she’s older, she still sees a lot of life in the tunnel.

“Kids racing through it on foot or on bikes and skateboards. You’ll see people filming DIY music videos in there. In some ways, it’s come to symbolize a lot of the culture and feel for the neighborhood,” she continued. “Everyone is doing their own thing and claiming their space, even in this little underground space.”

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