Like guardians, the eye-catching pop-up billboards stretch nearly halfway down the western side of the block on St. Nicholas Avenue from 120th Street.
Like messengers, too, the mere presence of the tall, sleek metal and glass structures silently indicates they have important information to convey.
They do; for they sketch the stories of nine men and women working in Harlem who represent some of the many facets of the community’s response to the fearsome impact these past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The installation is part of the “Harlem is … Healing” exhibition, the latest project of the longstanding collaboration between Community Works and the New Heritage Theatre Group exploring the multi-faceted history of Harlem and the communities of color which surround it.
The entire “Harlem is … Healing” exhibit is actually much larger—telling the stories of another forty-one individuals who are part of the community’s “culture of healing.” All of it can be seen now on the “Harlem is … Healing” website at www.harlem-is.org/harlem-heroesv
The individuals in it include doctors and other health practitioners, as one would expect—but also community activists, educators, writers and other artists, and leaders of Harlem civic organizations. Those on the street-corner placards at St. Nicholas and 120th Street are: Andrea Arroyo, an artist and activist; Tau Battice, a photographer; Robin Bell-Stevens, the director and executive producer of Jazzmobile; Dietrice Bolden, managing director of IMPACT Repertory Theatre; Akemi Kochiyama, a writer and activist; Winston Majette, executive director of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; Arva Rice, president and CEO of the New York Urban League, Jackie Rowe-Adams, co-founder of Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E. (Stop Another Violent End), which provides services to victims of violence and work to eliminate the illegal inter-state transportation of guns; and the Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr., senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church.
The exhibit is the latest of the thus far two-decades-long series of “harlem is. . ” exhibitions on Harlem’s past and present as a Black community. In 2018, Community Works and New Heritage Theatre Group were joined by Harlem Hospital, which has its own historic collection of art going back to the New Deal era, to permanently house those previous exhibits—on the past and present of music, theater and dance in Harlem—in the hospital.
That installation is expected to open to the public later this year—fulfilling, said Sylvia L. White, the hospital’s deputy executive director, their commitment to further spread “the healing power of art.”
Barbara Horowitz explained that the “Healing” mini-exhibit on St. Nicholas, which was made possible by the city’s Department of Transportation art program, was another way of boosting residents’ confidence in Harlem’s resilience.
“We want to alert them to the heroes in our own community at a time when we face not only the pandemic but continuing issues of crime and gun violence, hunger and health challenges and other problems,” she said. “We all need to know about the good works our neighbors from so many walks of life are doing for Harlem.”
In other words, in this moment when Harlem (and indeed the whole of humanity) is facing a multi-dimensional crisis—medical, environmental, financial, economic, political and spiritual—the “Harlem is … Healing” exhibit reminds us that, as it always has, Harlem contains a dense network of individuals and institutions who are challenging the dynamics of its being besieged. They are working to change the status of the present from a “crisis” to an “opportunity.
The exhibit also underscores two age-old realities that have always characterized Harlem (and Black communities throughout the country). One is that the work of its activists can be viewed through the prism of a “culture of healing” precisely because Black Americans have always been besieged by the hydra-headed virus of racism—which, in turn, has required an antidote that itself can be expressed in many different ways. Sometimes the healing response is expressed through the work of physicians, nurses, and other health practitioners. Sometimes by psychiatrists and psychologists.
But who can deny that African Americans as individuals and as a group have been healed through political and social activism, through the expression of religious faith, and through the work of artists—photographers, musicians, writers and poets, painters, dancers and sculptors—too?
Finally, “Harlem is … Healing” underscores that Harlem is full of “exceptional people”—individuals whose achievements suggest they possess enormous reservoirs of ambition, intelligence, shrewdness, compassion and civic-mindedness that illuminate how individual interests can produce a shared profound commitment to civic activism.
For more information about Community Works, visit www.harlem-is.org. More information about New Heritage Theatre Group can be found at https://www.newheritagetheatre.org
Lee A. Daniels is a journalist and a board member of Community Works.