Hell’s Kitchen Residents Need More Funds to Restore NYC’s Oldest Community Mural


A 60-by-65-foot mural is hidden behind scaffolding. A tree grows on the left of the photo. The mural oversees a basketball court in a park.

Arnold Belkin’s 1972 anti-gentrification mural, covered in scaffolding, at the Mathews-Palmer Playground in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Sum Yi Karen Ng

Arnold Belkin’s 1972 anti-gentrification mural, painted on the wall of a residential building, was once a sight to behold at the Mathews-Palmer Playground in Hell’s Kitchen. But over time the bright colors have faded and the wall has been damaged from a water leak. To restore its former glory, for the past nine years local residents have been raising money to repair the mural, but said it’s been difficult to secure enough funds from the community and city.

“It’s a really beloved mural,” said Denise Penizzotto, a muralist and former Hell’s Kitchen resident who helped start the restoration project in 2012.

Titled “Against Domestic Colonialism” the mural is the city’s oldest community mural, and one of three in the country by the renowned late artist Arnold Belkin. Residents want the mural restored by 2022 to mark its 50th anniversary and the 30th of Belkin’s death. Almost a decade ago, they formed a committee to oversee repairs and fundraising. But the mural committee is still $36,840 away from the $86,000 needed to complete the project. Further complicating matters, it has been difficult for them to come to an agreement with the owners of the residential building where the mural resides.

The owner of the building where the mural is painted was unwilling to pay for the wall’s resurfacing, said Mischa Kischkum, a committee member. He said the water leakage was so severe that it damaged some of the apartments. The owner wanted the city to pay for “part of it or all of it, and that dragged on for years,” said Kischkum.

“Last year, he lost in court, and that was the final opportunity; he couldn’t appeal anymore. The court said no, it is your responsibility,” he said.

Several groups, including the parks department, city council and the police department, are involved in the restoration project, said Steve Fanto, a Hell’s Kitchen resident who is also on the committee.

“It can be frustrating too, jumping through all the hoops of city bureaucracy,” said Fanto. “But I will say in the same breath how it’s inspiring to work with the director of Parks, the police, and others, who want to help.”

New York City Council has committed its support to the project as well. “Once the wall is resurfaced, we look forward to helping in any way possible in the repainting phase of this iconic mural,” said Speaker Corey Johnson, in an email.

The parks department said in an email that it’s “responsible for issuing permits necessary for scaffold installation and providing access to the playground.”

But securing funds is an ongoing challenge. Penizzotto said they submit grant proposals to the city every year. “They have different budgetary cut-offs, so we do not have a promised goal from them,” she said. In the meantime, the restoration committee fundraises by advertising at local events, including neighborhood block fairs. Penizzotto hopes new residents will recognize their efforts.

Belkin’s 60-by-65-foot mural depicts several scenes, including a Hell’s Kitchen resident holding a protest sign that says, “We the people demand control of our communities,” and a construction vehicle crushing a diverse group of residents. When the mural was painted in 1972, the neighborhood was “a melting pot of ethnicities,” said Julio Rosario, a longtime resident and retired computer science professor.

Gentrification in Hell’s Kitchen has been an issue for decades. According to the census, the median household income rose by 11% from 2010 to 2019. “It might unfortunately disable some from being able to participate so much in the community,” said Fanto. Belkin had those same concerns when he painted the mural almost 50 years ago.

“Belkin’s artistic foundation was built upon serving the people and creating images that speak to injustices and challenges class inequalities,” said Claudia E. Zapata, a curatorial assistant of Latinx Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in an email.

“[Mexican] muralism is largely about revolution,” said Jeronimo Duarte Riascos, assistant professor of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, in an email. Class struggle is a common theme, and Mexican muralism included those who were usually excluded from art in museums, he said.

Belkin recruited local children and residents to paint the bottom section of the mural in order to help them understand their surroundings, said Kischkum. It became a neighborhood project. 

Penizzotto also plans to involve local residents as she repaints and restores Belkin’s mural exactly like the original. The artist’s family provided her with the maquette Belkin used, and the manufacturer of Belkin’s paints, Golden Paints, donated supplies to the restoration project.

A timeline on a completion date is unclear, Penizzotto said. But Fanto is hopeful the restoration will be finished in time for the 2022 anniversaries of the mural and Belkin’s life. “The energy level is as high as it’s ever been, in terms of people being connected and energized,” he said.

The mural represents community involvement, said Kischkum. “It’s a snapshot in time, and hopefully, a beacon to help us keep this kind of focus on the community and staying connected with the city planners, so that they don’t just do whatever they want and ignore our needs.” Kischkum said he plans on setting up a nonprofit to involve neighborhood schools, adding that he envisions students learning about the history of the mural, as well as taking field trips to see it at the Mathews-Palmer Playground.