On Wednesday, Midwood Properties, a New York-based real estate developer who bought the property which used to house the 12th Street Gym, whitewashed the Gloria Cazares mural before demolition was set to start to make way for a 30-story housing complex. The act was not only deliberate, but it was also done in bad faith without consulting either the artist who created the mural, Michelle Angela Ortiz, or Mural arts.
For months, a group of us — including friends of Gloria; Gloria’s wife, Tricia Dressel; the artist; Mural Arts and concerned neighbors who opposed the project — had been working with Midwood Properties to try and preserve the mural and if not salvageable, to create a new project that honored Gloria’s legacy as well as the legacy of the Black abolitionist Henry Minton who lived on the property and was part of the underground railroad. It is believed that the property still contains tunnels used at the time, a fact that should be investigated so that the property can be designated as historically significant and so as to prevent its impending demolition.
The erasure of the mural feels particularly painful as it was the only mural depicting a Latinx LGBTQ woman of color in a city with 3,600 murals to date and counting. The mural’s position in the heart of the Gayborhood was also significant to the LGBTQ community who see the neighborhood as an important location with historical ties to business, and community-based organizations, and as a place where the LGBTQ community has for decades celebrated not only our community festivals but also some of our most important civil rights achievements.
The destruction of the mural also destroyed the artistic process through which murals are created. In this case, the careful research and interviews conducted by the artist to ensure that the mural captured the most important elements of the subject’s life as well as the creation of the mural itself which involved her family, her friends and community. More poignantly, Gloria’s mother and aunt (both now deceased) as well as her cousins helped to paint the mural while telling us stories about her, and in destroying the mural Midwood destroyed their contribution to its making.
As friends shared photos of workmen whitewashing this beautiful mural which meant so much to so many of us, I could not help but feel a sense of rage shared by so many of us people of color about the willful erasure of our lives and our stories. The optics of literally painting over the mural with white paint is not lost on those of us whose lives oftentimes feel invisible because of the color of our skin, our economic conditions, our sexual orientation and our stories as immigrants. Gloria’s work and legacy was in fighting for that recognition, she worked to even the playing field and it was that legacy the mural so beautifully celebrated. In what has already been a difficult year for so many, the destruction of the mural is a violent act against all of us who saw our lives and our work represented on that wall.
David Acosta is a poet, writer, artist and social justice activist and was a close friend of Gloria Casarez.