Daffodils, crocuses, and tulips are in full swing and birds are singing more than ever. What better way to celebrate than to look at the stunning pieces that take flight on NYC’s walls!
Following excerpts were originally part of Emily Raboteau’s, of the Orion Magazine, essay Spark Bird: Bearing witness to New York’s endangered species
Spark Bird: Bearing witness to New York’s endangered species
IF I CAN BE CALLED A BIRD-WATCHER, my spark was a pair of burrowing owls, painted on the narrow storefront gate of a shuttered real estate business on 145th Street in Harlem that brokers single-room occupancy housing for two hundred dollars a week. I spotted them after ice-skating with one of my kids at the rink in the shadow of towering smokestacks at Riverbank State Park. The park is a concession to the community for the massive wastewater sewage plant hidden beneath it. It was midway through the Trump years: January, but not cold like Januaries when I was little, not cold enough to see your breath. It wasn’t snowing, and it wasn’t going to snow. The owls watched me quizzically with their heads cocked, their long skinny legs perched on the colored bands of a psychedelic rainbow that seemed to lead off that gray street into another, more magical realm.
After the spark, I started noticing scores of them along my two-mile walk to work at City College. Most of the bird murals in Upper Manhattan are spray-painted on the rolled-down gates of mom and pop shops along the gallery of Broadway, at street level. Others are painted up higher on the sides of six-story apartment buildings. Nesting, perching, roosting in the doorways of delis, pharmacies, and barbershops. Lewis’s woodpecker at the Taqueria; the almighty boat-tailed grackle at the Buena Vista Vision Center; Brewer’s blackbird at the La Estrella dry cleaner, and so on—dozens of bird murals, each one marked in a corner with the name of the ongoing series to which they belong: the Audubon Mural Project.
John James Audubon, the pioneering ornithologist and bird artist once lived in the hood. He’s buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church at 155th Street, midway between my apartment building in Washington Heights and my job in West Harlem, where I teach writing, sometimes using Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a prompt. Audubon Terrace, once part of his estate, is now the site of a complex of cultural buildings. Other uptown locales named after Audubon include a housing project, an avenue, and the ballroom where Malcolm X was killed. Its historic facade remains as cladding to a newer medical research building—a concession to Black Americans who protested the ballroom’s demolition—at 165th Street, across from the emergency room of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. When you walk by these places, as I do, you can spy many of the same birds Audubon chronicled in his masterful archetype of wildlife illustration, Birds of America (1827–1838), in the guise of public art.
The project is an unfolding environmental awareness partnership between the gallerist Avi Gitler, the National Audubon Society, and local business and property owners. The murals are sponsored through donations to Audubon and painted by myriad artists, some of them local, in a diverse range of styles. There are presently 123, and counting, bird species depicted uptown. Sometimes they disappear when businesses change hands. The project aims to reach 389. This is the number of North American species, according to Audubon’s 2019 “Survival by Degrees” birds and climate report, at risk of extinction from climate change—an alarming two-thirds of North American birds. I have attempted, so far, to photograph them all.
“We know that the fate of birds and people are intertwined,” Audubon magazine’s editor in chief, Jennifer Bogo wrote me. “That’s especially true in communities, like Northern Manhattan, that suffer disproportionately from environmental and human health burdens. We hope that the Audubon Mural Project makes people literally stop in the streets and consider what’s at stake with this critically important planetary crisis, while at the same time beautifying and drawing attention to neighborhoods that have historically not been the focus of environmental protections.”
To my eye, the project is at once a meditation on impermanence, seeing, climate change, environmental justice, habitat loss, and a sly commentary on gentrification, as many of the working-class passersby are being pushed out of the hood in a migratory pattern that signals endangerment. Most of all, the murals bring me wonder and delight. I can hardly be called a bird-watcher. But because this flock has landed where I live, work, parent, pray, vote, and play, permit me to be your guide.
The birds became integral to my orientation in the city. I couldn’t tell you the exact cross street of the Municipal Credit Union ATM location where I and other city workers withdraw cash, but I could tell you it’s right next to the American bald eagle.
Want to discover more about the Audubon community? Check out Matthew Spady’s The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot
Audubon Park’s journey from farmland to cityscape
The study of Audubon Park’s origins, maturation, and disappearance is at root the study of a rural society evolving into an urban community, an examination of the relationship between people and the land they inhabit. When John James Audubon bought fourteen acres of northern Manhattan farmland in 1841, he set in motion a chain of events that moved forward inexorably to the streetscape that emerged seven decades later. The story of how that happened makes up the pages of The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It.
Beginning with the Audubons’ return to America in 1839, The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot follows the many twists and turns of the area’s path from forest to city, ending in the twenty-first century with the Audubon name re-purposed in today’s historic district, a multiethnic, multi-racial urban neighborhood far removed from the homogeneous, Eurocentric Audubon Park suburb.
Want to learn more about birds? Check out Still the Same Hawk by John Waldman
A groundbreaking new book, Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York brings into conversation diverse and intriguing perspectives on the relationship between nature and America’s most prominent city. The volume’s title derives from a telling observation in Robert Sullivan’s contribution that considers how a hawk in the city is perceived so much differently from a hawk in the countryside.
Yet it’s still the same hawk.
Still the Same Hawk intermingles elements of natural history, urban ecology, and environmental politics, providing fresh insights into nature and the urban environment on one of the world’s great stages for the clash of these seemingly disparate realms—New York City.
Want to know more about the intersection between natural and the spiritual worlds? Check out Mark I. Wallance’s When God Was a Bird
In a time of rapid climate change and species extinction, what role have the world’s religions played in ameliorating—or causing—the crisis we now face? Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, appears to bear a disproportionate burden for creating humankind’s exploitative attitudes toward nature through unearthly theologies that divorce human beings and their spiritual yearnings from their natural origins. In this regard, Christianity has become an otherworldly religion that views the natural world as “fallen,” as empty of signs of God’s presence.
And yet, buried deep within the Christian tradition are startling portrayals of God as the beaked and feathered Holy Spirit – the “animal God,” as it were, of historic Christian witness. Through biblical readings, historical theology, continental philosophy, and personal stories of sacred nature, this book recovers the model of God in Christianity as a creaturely, avian being who signals the presence of spirit in everything, human and more-than-human alike.
Want to learn more about bird mimicry in literature? Check out Mocking Bird Technologies by Christopher GoGwilt and Melanie D. Holm
Mocking Bird Technologies brings together a range of perspectives to offer an extended meditation on bird mimicry in literature: the way birds mimic humans, the way humans mimic birds, and the way mimicry of any kind involves technologies that extend across as well as beyond languages and species. The essays examine the historical, poetic, and semiotic problem of mimesis exemplified both by the imitative behavior of parrots, starlings, and other mocking birds, and by the poetic trope of such birds in a range of literary and philological traditions.
Drawing from a cross-section of traditional periods and fields in literary studies (18th-century studies, romantic studies, early American studies, 20th-century studies, and postcolonial studies), the collection offers new models for combining comparative and global studies of literature and culture.
Want to admire the glamour of peacocks? Check out Hudson River Museum’s Strut
The peacock, strutting in its sapphire-blue and emerald-green plumage, symbolizes all things vain and beautiful in centuries of painting and sculpture, in books, and on clothes that swirl and shine like the iridescent bird itself.
Intrigued by the exotic art of Asia that prized and portrayed the peacock and its trail of an emblazoned train of feathers, Western artists in the 1890s chose the bird as a symbol of design on their canvases and for objects in the home.
The first major scholarly examination of the peacock in visual arts in the United States, England, and France, from the nineteenth century’s Gilded Age to today, Strut, organized by the Hudson River Museum, has assembled paintings and decorative arts from museums and private collections throughout the United States.
Contributing essays to the catalog Strut: The Peacock and Beauty in Art by Bartholomew F. Bland; Penelope Fritzer; Kirsten M. Jensen; Melissa J. Martens; Ellen E. Roberts; and Laura L. Vookles.