Since 2003, “Lend Me Your Ears,” a mural designed by Jordan Monahan and executed with assistance from Alison Zapata, has welcomed visitors to East Liberty. The two-story-tall work, depicting young men on bicycles, a young girl blowing bubbles, birds’ wings and flowers, was dynamic and colorful, a vibrant representation of the neighborhood.
Last week, the mural was replaced by a solid wash of gray, a change that many are calling disrespectful at best, and even literal whitewashing. Social media exploded with postings of the paint-over in progress. Many observers regarded the erasure of the images of African-American youths as a chilling reflection of what gentrification is doing to the community’s residents.
“It felt very symbolic of the changes that we warned about for the last several years,” says filmmaker Chris Ivey, whose documentary-film series East of Liberty has chronicled recent rapid changes in the neighborhood.
Artist Zapata is also saddened by the mural’s disappearance. “It’s like losing a friend,” she says.
The paint-over follows the recent sale of the building at Penn Avenue and Euclid to real-estate developer Alphabet City. According to the local firm’s website, the building is slated to have office space on top and retail on the bottom. The mural reportedly didn’t fit into its plans. At press time, Alphabet City had not returned calls from CP seeking comment. But according to Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, the mural’s funder, the firm had contacted Monahan about adapting the work to the renovation. However, Monahan declined. He also declined CP’s request to comment on the paint-over.
Last week, even as workers covered up “Lend Me Your Ears,” some observers were criticizing Sprout. Lewis Long says the group would have liked to prevent the paint-over, but that the original mural agreement protected the work only under the building’s previous owner, Novum Pharmaceutical Research Services.
In renderings of the planned renovation on Alphabet City’s website, the building’s ground level seems dedicated to shopping, while an upper floor boasts large windows revealing day-lit office space. The outside of the property is surrounded by trees pent up in tidy squares of sidewalk. Moving throughout are people, holding coffee cups and shopping bags, in the midst of work or enjoying a day of leisure. The leaves on the spindly trees are green. The building is blue gray slate. The people, every single one, are white.