It was the summer of 1974. New York artist Manny Vega, today known for his public mosaics and murals, was 18. He had recently graduated from high school and was trying to decide whether to go to college. Vega knew he had an artistic voice, but he didn’t yet know what to do with it. Then, while kicking around East Harlem, something on East 104th Street and Lexington Avenue caught his attention:
“I would walk by on 104th Street and this guy was on a pull-up scaffold by himself,” Vega says. “A tiny, wooden, crickity-crackety scaffold.” Armed with oil paints and a brush, the man was meticulously creating a mural on the side of a four-story residential building.
Vega walked by the mural every day or so to see it progress. Slowly, recognizable faces started to emerge from the wall – people who lived in the neighborhood, even people who lived in the building.
“But it was unusual because he was this Caucasian, lanky white guy painting this Puerto Rican, black barrio thing, with a lot of soul, a lot of ‘esencia’ — with a lot of essence — as though he had been living in the neighborhood all along.”
Vega, fascinated, decided to ask if he could join the project.
“One day, I screamed up at him. I said, ‘Hey, white boy! Give me a job!’ He came down from the scaffold and he asked me, ‘What, do you paint?’
“I said, ‘I can learn…’”
The artist’s name was Hank Prussing. Vega became his apprentice and helped Prussing complete one of New York City’s most iconic murals: “The Spirit of East Harlem.”
Looming above a rapidly changing neighborhood, “The Spirit of East Harlem” represents a rougher yet more romantic time in East Harlem’s history. People who look up at it can imagine what it was like to wander East Harlem in the 1970s.
It portrays neighborhood residents of that time, including toy store owner Morris Wittenberg and George Espada, who sang in an “electric Latin soul” band called Flash and the Dynamics, presented in vivid tableaus between the building’s windows.
The work has survived the elements, a fire and vandals. Each time it was threatened, people joined forces to preserve it. Because of its importance to residents, Hope Community Inc., which owns the building, says it is committed to maintaining the work.
“The mural became like a cultural hallmark, not only to East Harlem, but specifically to that one block,” says Vega.
“It’s a time capsule,” he says. “It invokes a dialogue with people where they come together, collecting thoughts and sharing anecdotes about the past. That’s a very precious thing.”
The mural’s story begins in the 1970s when East Harlem, known as “El Barrio,” was largely populated by Puerto Rican immigrants. Between 1945 and 1965, nearly one million Puerto Ricans moved to the United States seeking employment. Two-thirds of them settled in New York, establishing a large community in East Harlem. The neighborhood struggled with poverty and a widespread drug scene.
But it also nurtured a Latino cultural renaissance. Two arts organizations were born: El Museo del Barrio, founded in 1969, and Taller Boricua, founded in 1970.
“It was a romantic time,” says Vega. “We had more of an art scene. We had grassroots arts organizations that were sponsoring projects and places for people to go to explore their creativity.”
The neighborhood around Lexington Avenue and East 104th Street was alive with activity. Angel Ortiz Jr., who visited his grandmother there on weekends, remembers summer block parties with food, music and dancing. George Espada and his band performed in a nearby schoolyard.
“When you were a part of that neighborhood you got to know everybody,” says Ortiz. “It was truly an incredible sense of community and family.”
Jorge Vargas, owner of a nearby botanica, recalls: “There was a lot of things going on. It was beautiful.”
In 1972, Hank Prussing, a young artist from Maryland, was in East Harlem surveying the neighborhood’s public art for an architecture course at Pratt Institute. He was interested in street art and East Harlem was already known for its murals.
The Rev. George Calvert, pastor of the Church of the Living Hope on East 104th Street, suggested that Prussing add his own mural in the neighborhood. Prussing, who’d never created an outdoor mural, initially felt taken aback.
“I don’t know, let me think about it,” he remembers replying.
A family friend, Calvert had recently helped establish Hope Community Inc., an affordable housing organization. Calvert had grown up in wealthy Scarsdale, N.Y., but despite “that stigma of being an outsider and a white privileged guy, he had a very strong sense of a mission and he did all kinds of things for that community,” Prussing says.
When Prussing agreed to paint the mural, Calvert arranged for local stores to donate paint and a scaffold. The artist planned the project during the summer of 1973, taking hundreds of photographs of East Harlem residents and becoming captivated by its people and culture.
“There were people there that lived on the block and never left the block and that was their whole life,” he remembers. “They didn’t speak English, some of them, because they didn’t have to. They had their family and friends around them.”
Prussing stood out. “They called me gringo or they called me turkey sometimes,” he says, describing the neighborhood as “the quintessential different kind of environment than the one I grew up in.”
He relied on his photographs for inspiration. Each told a different story: Carmelita, who owned a nearby bodega, smiled as she wiped her hands with a dishcloth. A little girl in braids learned to ride a bicycle. Old men sat around a table playing dominoes. A musician plucked a cuatro. Teenaged boys lunged for a basketball.
“The more I looked at them the more I was fascinated by the neighborhood and the spirit of the community that’s there,” Prussing says. “I said, ‘Why don’t I just work with the photographs – they say everything.’”
The mural was painted in three sections, the left third in the summer of 1973 and the middle third that winter during Prussing’s school break. He brushed on layer after layer of oil paints and solvent so the pigment would become imbedded in the brick. Slowly, an artistic vision of the neighborhood emerged.
Not everyone was pleased with his rendering. The bodega owner, Carmelita, was unhappy with her portrait. She was “very private and didn’t appreciate all the feedback she was getting from everybody,” Vega says. Taking matters into her own hands, she paid several neighborhood kids to paint over her face.
Of course, Prussing repainted her portrait, but he notes, “it never looked the same.”
Then, something unexpected happened: a fire broke out in the building. When firefighters arrived on the scene, one mural portrait caused some confusion:
“One of the people I had painted up there actually was a fireman, looking out a window,” says Prussing. Firefighters, startled, “thought someone was in the building already putting the fire out.” (That figure, painted on a boarded-up window, was removed later during a renovation.)
Though the fire didn’t significantly damage the mural, the building’s roof was ruined and there was some question about the building’s structural soundness. Looking up at the unfinished mural, people could see the sky through the topmost windows. Prussing didn’t know if he could finish the project.
George Espada believes that “The Spirit of East Harlem” saved the building. Calvert recognized that the mural had become a community symbol. In a 1974 article published by Pratt Institute, he is quoted saying:
“The effect is magnificent … full of variety and life. People gather across the street to gaze up at it, intrigued and strengthened. It celebrates us as people engaged here in common tasks, united by our humanity. Friends and neighbors seem to emerge from the wall, familiar, yet newly significant and we all walk taller.”
Hope Community Inc. purchased and renovated the building for low-income housing. Calvert secured a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts and asked Prussing to complete the mural.
By that time, the neighborhood had embraced the artist’s presence.
“They totally adopted Hank,” says Vega. “Hank wasn’t white any more. They fed him. If he had to go to use the bathroom, he would just go through the windows. And because people thought that he was making them famous, almost, they had an endearing relationship with him.”
Prussing concurs, “I felt like I was sort of part of the family after a while.”
He finished “The Spirit of East Harlem” in 1978. “It was a big hit, I guess,” Prussing says. “All of the community residents were proud. The ones that were up there were proud they were there.”
Thirty-four years later, “The Spirit of East Harlem,” has undergone several transformations, but many who were a part of it still feel connected to the work.
Hank Prussing went on to paint about 35 more murals in New York City. Many have either faded or been destroyed – one was lost in 2001 in the World Trade Center. Today, he’s an architect living in East Hartland, Conn., with his wife. His work keeps him busy, but he still finds time for art now and then. Prussing recently painted a mural for his daughter’s school library. “I would love to retire and go back to painting,” he says. “I always did architecture as a whim.”
Prussing, now 63, accepts the way the mural has changed over the years. “I started something,” he says. “If they want to keep it up and continue to change it, that’s great. It’s not my mural anymore.”
With his support, Manny Vega restored the mural in 1998, adding his own embellishments and color palette. Once again, neighborhood residents watched and supported Vega as he brought the mural to life, bringing him coffee and doughnuts as he worked.
Hope Community Inc. financed the $35,000 restoration. George Calvert died in 2005 at age 76, but the organization continues to provide affordable housing, commercial space and social services to low-income East Harlem residents. In 1999, Prussing transferred the mural’s copyright to Hope Community. “It’s a part of our history,” says Executive Director Walter Roberts.
Many depicted in the mural have died, but a few remain and remember. Angel Ortiz Jr., now 56,works for General Electric. He can still be seen in the mural with a set of nunchucks tucked behind his belt. Ortiz never lost his love for martial arts; he earned his black belt in Taekwondo in 2002.
George Espada, 69, still lives in East Harlem. He has led a colorful life; performing with the Dynamics at Lincoln Center, pursuing a brief career in semiprofessional wrestling, then serving as Republican district leader in East Harlem for several years. Espada now works for AARP and still sings with a band. “I’ve done it all, except drugs,” he says.
When he looks at the mural, he sees many people he remembers with fondness – Carmelita, Morris Wittenberg and two of the old men playing dominoes, whom he identifies as Joe and Mascota. Short gray hair has replaced Espada’s ’70s Afro, but he still seems to know everyone in the neighborhood; people smile and shake his hand as he passes. When he walks past Lexington and 104th Street, he often stops to look up at “The Spirit of East Harlem.”
“I’m still very proud of the fact that every time I go by there, there I am!” he says, laughing.
Take a closer look at Hank Prussing’s 1974 mural in an interactive graphic.