Mosaic Man’s Flag Project and the Astor Place Redesign

Posted on: July 12th, 2011 at 11:26 am by

There has been a whole lot going on recently with the downtown fixture and beloved outlaw artist, Jim “Mosaic Man” Power.

Aside from announcing that he’s on Facebook and Twitter, and protesting the destruction of historic buildings in the area, Power has been moving full speed ahead on his latest project – to cover all of his lamp posts with flags of the world. There are already two installations completed along St. Mark’s Place, displaying the flags of the United States and Japan. He found an apprentice last summer who’s trying to help him, since Power speculates that his new flag undertaking will likely outlive him. (And, his longtime canine companion, Jessie Jane, can only help so much).

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Complicating matters, after years of working – and sometimes living – on the street, Power’s legs are not in good shape. He has trouble walking and currently relies on a cane to get around. He has been trying to raise money of late – online and on site – for a motorized wheelchair so that he can keep working on his vision. But the Mosaic Man also needs a whole lot of dishes (broken or otherwise) to recreate the mosaics for his flags.

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Power has also been very upset recently – and quite vocal – about the upcoming plans to renovate Astor Place and Cooper Square. Turning this currently nebulous space into a public plaza has been greeted as good news by many of the neighbors. It has the potential to solve the treacherous crosswalks problem, dangerous biking areas, and the fact that it’s, well, kinda ugly right now. However, some are concerned about creating a new Meatpacking District dilemma, attracting noise and “hooligans” at all hours of the night.  But, more about that in a moment…

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Some of the community is also concerned, as is Power, that at least six of his iconic mosaic lamp posts and planters, which flank Astor Place and surrounding areas, will be removed and destroyed. According to DNAinfo, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation has said that they are aware of Power’s mosaics and that his work is being “taken into consideration.”

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The creation of a public plaza should be celebrated, but in New York, of course, “it’s complicated.” There’s just so much at stake here.  Along with the issues of displaced renegade art, and potential displays of public drunkenness, there has also been talk of banning the popular trend of food trucks from the area. Local businesses are concerned about the competition, and the community is concerned that the trucks will serve as a destination for post-drinking snacks (or hangover cures?) late at night.

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If only William “Holly” Whyte was still around to help us sort this complex issue out. An urbanist, journalist and “people watcher,” and a mentor of Jane Jacobs, Whyte spent much of his time on in-depth studies of urban spaces in the 1950’s and later. He studied the positive affects of public spaces in desolate midtown areas which contained nothing but tall gray office towers. Perhaps Whyte could have devised a way to beam some of those rambunctious hooligans over to midtown where those public plazas sit empty at night, and no one lives above them.

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An interesting side note: the design for the public plaza, which was recently approved by the community board, will pay tribute to a 1600’s Native American trail, which had meandered through the area that is now Astor Place. There is also word that during construction, an abandoned subterranean restroom was discovered at the end of the park at East 6th Street and Bowery. Wonder what will be done with that? (A new speakeasy with a mosaic-lined VIP room, perhaps?).

Story and photos by Lori Greenberg

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