Harlem artist, neighborhood work to preserve murals
Reported on June 24, 2011
Surrounded by tourists on an early Sunday morning, Harlem artist Franco “The Great” Gaskin signs autographs and poses for pictures in front of his painted mural storefront gates, as his wife, Kimmi, encourages others to sign his petition. Since 1978, Gaskin, 83, has changed the scenery on West 125th Street by painting 200 murals on storefront security gates free of charge to business owners.
Kimmi Gaskin joins him on Sunday mornings before businesses are open and while gates are still down to greet tourists and sell memorabilia across from the famous Apollo Theater. They are collecting signatures to help relocate and exhibit the gates in East Harlem because of a new city law that changes the appearance of the gates.
A group of 15 French tourists were concerned about the possible loss of the artwork and signed the petition. French tourist Ismael Gace, 24, said, “We like his designs; it’s beautiful. Seems good for the town and better than the regular look.”
Ulrich Chatelain, an independent company tour guide who has for many years brought tourists to see the mural gates on West 125th Street said, “It’s impossible to lose the gates. These paintings should be here forever.”
Many Harlem residents consider these gates a part of the neighborhood’s history.
“Over the years the artwork gave us hope. We saw beauty through the urban jungle,” said Shanny Herrera, 35, who has lived in Central Harlem all her life.
On July 1, new business owners throughout New York City are no longer permitted to secure their stores using solid security metal gates due to a 2009 law passed by the City Council. New stores must now use metal gates that allow at least 70 percent of the area covered by the gate to be visible. Stores secured with the solid metal gates, like the ones Gaskin has painted murals on, must replace them by July 1, 2026 to avoid fees.
According to the Council, the new gates will deter vandalism and improve quality of life on the streets.
“This bill not only helps first responders when they are called to protect our businesses, but it carries the additional benefit of beautifying our city’s landscape,” said Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., chair of the Public Safety Committee, in a 2009 press release.
Vallone, who led the charge for the gate changes, was not available to comment. With only 25 of his 200 painted gates remaining, Gaskin has accepted the change but would like to see the remaining gates preserved.
“I don’t want to stand in the way of progress, but my idea was to find a new home for the gates; a place they can still be appreciated,” said Gaskin.
To date, more than 1,000 signatures have been collected. Gaskin is also working with the Harlem Community Development Corporation to find a new home for the gates. The proposed new location for the gates is on East 125th Street between First and Second avenues. The relocation, which is estimated to cost about $250,000, is supported by Community Boards 10 and 11 in Manhattan.
“We’re willing to do all we can to help advance his efforts to preserve his last gates,” said Jessica Bellamy, a CB 10 member on the Arts and Culture Committee.
Gaskin continues to raise awareness of this initiative through his petition. If you would like to join Gaskin’s efforts to preserve the gates, you can now sign the new online petition here.