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