A few weeks ago, birds, bears, and an elephant joined the teams of squirrels and pigeons that usually populate Broadway’s medians. These animals, not indigenous to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are part of a new public art exhibition extending from Columbus Circle up through Washington Heights. Two bronze birds balancing on three apples mark the spot between Earl Hall and Barnard’s main gates. Another sculpture at the W. 114th Street crosswalk depicts an acorn, an apple, a crushed soda can, a nut (as in the tool), and a sheep melded together in a standing arc shape. Regardless of personal artistic preference, these autumn-themed sculptures grace the medians of Broadway with a whimsical flair during a time of year that quickly becomes drab and gray once the trees lose their leaves.
From now until April, 18 sculptures by Peter Woytuk, like these ones, will decorate Broadway. According to its website, the Broadway Mall Association organizes rotating exhibitions in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation and local community groups, artists, and galleries. These sculptures fall under the BMA’s “Public Art” initiative to beautify the street. At the surface level, these efforts are commendable—we are given the luxury of admiring artwork while we wait for the traffic light to change. Art becomes a part of our everyday lives without making us spend an entry fee to a museum. And since we are used to finding various species of trash littering our streets, an art installation is a welcome distraction.
To me, these squirrels and apples give off a message to passersby: “This is an upstanding community. The people here care about art, especially the type that has an abstract and complicated meaning. Your medians are for crossing the street, or for homeless people, or for graffiti, or for stealing iPods. Our medians are museum space.” By installing public art, the BMA may have the benign goal of beautifying the city. But at the same time, these sculptures, and the term “public art” in general, are not devoid of a political function.
The BMA was founded in 1980 in response to the fiscal problems New York City faced in the 1970s, and it partners with government agencies, local business leaders, and other nonprofits in the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and Washington Heights. The website states that the BMA “works to plant the seeds of economic development by upgrading and maintaining the malls, and by providing winter lighting and public art exhibitions along upper Broadway.” This mission statement may seem apolitical, but emphasizing the connection between economic development and beautification raises a controversial debate in urban development discourse.
In the 1980s, when New York City was the epitome of urban blight nationwide, James Wilson and George Kelling of the conservative Manhattan Institute introduced their “Broken Windows” theory in the Atlantic Monthly. The crux of this theory is that broken windows left unfixed send the message that further crime will not be prosecuted, starting with vandalism and escalating to more serious crimes. In other words, blight attracts more blight. One major criticism of this theory in practice is that it permits illegal forms of policing—such as unfairly targeting minorities—since police officers look for activities or people that “don’t belong.”
Public art was incorporated into urban redevelopment efforts of the 1980s. Efforts to clean up the city were vast, with changes in zoning laws, new Business Improvement Districts, and construction of luxury housing to cater to the needs of upper-class professionals in New York. The city may have been “cleaned up” to an extent, but these efforts also caused homelessness as a result of gentrification. In the context of these divisive political changes, art was seen as apolitical and able to unify the population. In practice, though, public art is political.
The broken windows theory seems to suggest that aesthetic solutions can effectively deal with problems that are rooted at the city’s structural or political level. The purpose of the sculptures in Morningside Heights, in terms of this theory, might be to reduce litter in the medians of Broadway by making the statement that those are preserved and sanctified areas. In turn, if there is no litter, there is less likely to be graffiti, and if there is no graffiti, there is less likely to be a mugging, and so forth.
The sculptures can add an interesting, even beautiful, dimension to Broadway, but they can’t cover up the vicious debates about eminent domain or gentrification that also exist. Furthermore, they don’t provide complete solutions to the real problems underlying instances of crime in our neighborhood. Instead, we should use the sculptures as vehicles to engage in conversation about what policy changes need to be implemented in order to improve the quality of life up and down Broadway.
Jessica Hills is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone studies. She is a former associate news editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator. Urban Dictionary runs alternate Fridays.