An unexpected cleanup of the graffiti-covered tunnel sparks controversy in Washington Heights

City officials quietly painted over a graffiti-coated tunnel in Washington Heights this weekend – drawing backlash from residents and community leaders who accused them of “whitewashing” the neighborhood’s culture.

The surprise scrubbing came on Friday morning, as Department of Transportation workers removed the colorful street art and public murals that have long lined the walls of the 191st Street pedestrian tunnel. News of the finished product sparked widespread outrage.

“What happened here is just a slap in the face to the community,” said Luiggy Gomez, an event producer and lifelong Washington Heights resident. “They erased history.”

The tunnel is covered in white after the city painted over the artwork.

Photo courtesy Phillipe Chatelain

The unusual corridor, which runs deep underground for three blocks between Broadway and the 1 train subway station on St Nicholas Avenue, has been the subject of growing concerns – and media attention – over homelessness, drug use, and other grim conditions in recent weeks.

But while city officials had discussed adding more services and light to the passageway, those conversations didn’t include plans to white out the “iconic” walls, according to Councilmember Carmen De La Rosa, who represents the area.

“No one ever asked them to paint the tunnel. That’s never been the source of the problem,” De La Rosa told Gothamist. “The community felt ownership of the art and culture that’s expressed there.”

Vincent Barone, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, which controls the tunnel, didn’t say what prompted the cleaning, but noted the agency planned to create a new art project in the tunnel.

“We look forward to working closely with the community and local elected officials on a project that celebrates the culture and diversity that makes New York so special,” he said.

The 1,000-foot tunnel has long been a contentious piece of street infrastructure. Unlike other pedestrian corridors, it is managed by the city, rather than the MTA, and is technically a public street. That designation has prompted decades of bureaucratic infighting, as well as complaints of neglect directed at city agencies.

The tunnel as it looked in 2015, following the city-sponsored mural project.

Jen Chung/Gothamist

After residents raised similar charges in 2015, the DOT sponsored a beautification project of the tunnel, paying five artists $15,000 each to brighten the walls with murals. At the time, a city commissioner likened the final product to “Lascaux,” a network of caves boasting priceless prehistoric art.

Over the years, graffiti artists have added their own tags to the walls, creating an ad-hoc canvas that’s been featured in street art tours and the film In the Heights.

“It was a unique art piece containing a collection of graffiti that was constantly evolving and reinventing itself,” noted Phillipe Chatelain, a Washington Heights resident, who said he was shocked to come across the blank walls on Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, Andrea von Bujdoss, one of the artists who painted the original murals, told Gothamist she was glad to see the DOT start over, noting the original murals had become subject to “pure vandalism.”

“I think it’s unfortunate in some ways that there wasn’t a proper budget for maintaining the work,” she added.

For some, the removal recalled another recent DOT controversy earlier this month, when the agency removed a road sign in Williamsburg celebrating the area’s Puerto Rican heritage. While the sign was quickly replaced, the episode ignited widespread anger toward city officials, who were accused of encouraging gentrification and displacement in the area.

De La Rosa said the controversy over the tunnel was emblematic of similar fears in Washington Heights.

“People feel this intensity that we’re losing our homes, we’re losing our community, and now we’re losing a piece of our history,” she said.

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