If you walk north along Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side, into Harlem and beyond, around Sugar Hill, the site of the 1994 Wesley Snipes’ film, and Hamilton Heights, where Alexander Hamilton spent the last two years of his life when that area that was still farmland, you will see, if you look closely, murals of birds painted on the sides of buildings. Some are large enough to cover the entire side of a building; others are so small you have to hunt for them. Eighty-two murals have been painted so far, although my old map, which I took last week on a scavenger hunt, only showed 21, and I could not even find all of those, for like all urban neighborhoods this area is always changing. I had read about the murals in Matthew Wills’ blog, Backyard and Beyond, which combines his wonderful bird photos, taken mostly in Brooklyn, and his delightfully radical politics.
The Audubon Mural Project is a collaborative effort of the National Audubon Society and Gitlerand& Gallery, who have commissioned artists to paint murals of each of 314 species that the Society’s Birds and Climate Change Report determined to be threatened by climate change. That’s over half of all the bird species in North America. So while the project is imaginative and quirky and often beautiful, it is also frightening, particularly since climate change, which almost everyone else understands is real, continues to be ignored – or more accurately, ridiculed – by our national party in power.
The murals are clustered around West 150th Street and Broadway, but can be found across a 30-block area; and as I walked through upper Manhattan last week in search of the vanishing birds, I thought too of the urban neighborhoods that have themselves long been threatened by blight, poverty, and neglect. Some of this uptown area is undergoing gentrification, a process that can simultaneously revive impoverished neighborhoods and displace the residents who can no longer afford to live there.
Most of you won’t make the trek to Harlem in search of the murals, but if you go to the website, “Where Birds Meet Art . . . after Dark,” you will be able to see 82 fantastic photos plus a site map for the murals. It’s a unique combination of art and social activism, which will, I hope, cause you to reflect on the beauty and the fragility of both our endangered birds and our imperiled neighborhoods. In a country going mad on bots and tweets and the travesty called Facebook, it’s a call to rise above the shallowness of our political discourse, a reminder that there is a real world out there that needs are mindful attention.