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For The Birds

Uptown art project highlights the perils of climate change.

Nancy Hoch Aug 31

Issue 239

In May, a time when hundreds of migrating bird species drop by New York City to rest and refuel, someone on my Brooklyn block discovered a male Scarlet Tanager in his backyard and took a picture for the local listserv. To us, the appearance of this gorgeous red and black bird on its way to the forests of the Northeast was a sign of spring. It used to be, when I was a child, that the arrival of robins was another. But nowadays in my neighborhood robins can be found in the bare branches of street trees all winter long.

Everyone who saw the photo of the Scarlet Tanager was thrilled. What none of us knew is that future generations of New Yorkers most likely will never see this bird or many others we currently take for granted. In 2014, a study by the National Audubon Society, the Birds and Climate Change Report, concluded that over half of all the bird species in North America will be threatened or endangered by climate change by the end of this century and that many could face extinction. Nearly all of the Scarlet Tanager’s summer range, mostly now in the United States, is projected to shift north into Canada by 2080. The report also found that the area of suitable climate for the Scarlet Tanager will shrink to three-quarters of the area it now occupies and that some of the bird’s “new” suitable range will be in western Canada, where it will face competition from the Western Tanager, also on Audubon’s climate-threatened list. “As a result,” the report concludes, “the future may be grimmer for the Scarlet Tanager than depicted by the model.”

Where John J. Audubon once roamed, muralists now paint larger-than-life images of 314 endangered North American bird species.

The Audubon report studies only temperature, precipitation and seasonal variables, not whether a bird’s new climate range will be viable in terms of vegetation, topography or food. “Trying to study how temperature lines up with the specific habitat that each bird needs is enormously complex,” National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Bogo explained to The Indypendent. “Even if the temperature further north is right, that habitat may not be a grassland or whatever it is that particular species needs.” Another unknown is how different species will react to climate change. Some will attempt to shift into the new range, while others, even as the environment around them becomes less viable, will stay put.

Birds “are better studied than any other comparable group,” making them, according to Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International, “an excellent means through which to take the pulse of the planet.” In other words, what is happening to birds has serious implications for all life on earth. Last spring, BirdLife International published The State of the World’s Birds which concluded that 40 percent of bird species worldwide are in decline and one in eight species is threatened with extinction. Agricultural expansion, pollution and urbanization are identified as major culprits. “Longer term,” the group warned, “human-induced climate change may prove to be the most serious threat of all.”

Deadly heatwaves and increasingly frequent “100-year” floods are one way climate change is making its presence felt. Another is what some environmentalists call “slow violence” — when change happens so gradually or so far from the public eye that the damage can scarcely be perceived. In the Arctic, for example, which is warming faster than elsewhere, insects are emerging weeks sooner than they used to, with the result that the chicks of shorebirds, which have flown thousands of miles to breed there, are starving to death.

The Audubon report identifies “strongholds,” habitat areas across the United States and Canada that the study shows will be especially important to preserve or protect. Each of the threatened birds has its own map, and consultants are on hand at Audubon to help local conservationists work with the data. But while National Audubon Society President David Yarnold sees identifying these strongholds as a cause for hope, he says that waging an all-out fight against climate change now is even more important.

The problem is, for many of us, the news about what is happening to the planet is so overwhelming — especially given the failure of the world community to address the crisis — that it is hard not to tune out. Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in his recent book The Climate Swerve calls this response “psychic numbing.”

In northern Manhattan, a mural project is underway that aims to help people tune back in. Artists are painting images of the 314 North American bird species the Audubon report has so far identified as threatened or endangered by climate change.

The project is a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and local art gallery owner Avi Gitler. In 2014, when Avi opened a commercial art gallery in Hamilton Heights, Gitler & ____ on Broadway near 150th Street, he asked two artists to paint murals on nearby roll-down store shutters. The first artist chose a bird as his subject, so the second artist did too. Not long after, Mark Jannot, a staffer at the National Audubon Society who lived nearby, noticed the murals and began talking to Avi about Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report, which had just been published. Out of this set of serendipities, the project was born.

Yumi Rodriquez at work on her mural of the Rufous Hummingbird, Broadway and 161st St.

Most of the murals can be found in the 140s and 150s along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. “We’ve concentrated the murals to make it walkable,” Avi, 38, told The Indy, “and we wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Audubon.” John James Audubon, the naturalist who documented nearly 700 species of American birds through his drawings, lived the last 10 years of his life in Hamilton Heights. His 14-acre estate overlooked the Hudson River and upon his death in 1851 he was buried nearby in Trinity Church Cemetery. People often leave offerings at the base of the Celtic cross marking his grave.

So far 102 species have been depicted, every mural another example, as one participating artist put it, “of how many ways one can paint the same subject.” I first viewed the murals on a Sunday morning in May when I joined an NYC Audubon walking tour. Riding the uptown #1 subway train, you can see the first murals around 133rd Street and Broadway, just before the train goes back underground. Two plump birds — a Bay-breasted Warbler and a Semipalmated Plover — face each other on adjacent roll-down store shutters, bright yellow orbs behind their heads as if they’re little avian saints. Up at 163rd Street near Amsterdam, the mood is decidedly grimmer: on a five-story wall two Tricolored Herons fight each other for the last morsel of food — a snake — while below them a third heron drowns in the rising waters of the melting glaciers.

At 148th and Broadway, two Ovenbirds, whose normal habitat is the quiet recesses of a forest floor, perch atop a landscape of colorful graffiti-inspired shapes where the artist, a native New Yorker, imagines “the species’ unheard song joining the noise of the urban world.” According to the Audubon report, by 2080 a large chunk of the Ovenbirds’ breeding range will shift north into what is now treeless tundra. Not far away, on a roll-down shutter, a turkey metamorphosing into a man — or perhaps it is a man turning into a turkey — is a reference to Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger, a story about inter-species empathy.

Many artists paint with the aesthetics of the neighborhood or the request of a store owner in mind. One store owner, who requested something “aggressive,” got lightning in the background and a Peregrine Falcon, talons extended, coming straight for the viewer.

Each mural is marked with audubonmuralproject.org, a website where you can learn more about the birds and the artists and donate to help defray costs. There is also a link on the site to Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report and to NYC Audubon, where you can sign up for a walking tour. If you want to head out on your own, the site supplies a map.

Since the project began in the fall of 2014, Avi has been its main organizer, soliciting most of the spaces — all donated by landlords or store owners — and selecting the artists, a diverse group ranging from studio artists who have never painted on a public wall to graffiti artists who were “painting subway cars back in the day.” Avi’s first preference is for artists from northern Manhattan, but artists from across the United States and from as far away as Australia have also come to paint.

The project runs on a shoestring, mostly funded by the National Audubon Society. “The first conversation I have with artists,” Avi says, “is that nobody does the Audubon mural project for the money.” Artists receive supplies and some get a very small honorarium. For out-of-towners there is a “local hosting infrastructure” — families who will put an artist up for two nights and give them dinner. The project received a grant from the Rubin Foundation a year and a half ago but is otherwise supported by small donations from fans of the project.

Red-faced Warbler at 601 W. 162nd St by ATM, a London street artist who uses art to help inspire a “re-wilding” of our cities and countryside.

About six months ago Avi came to the realization that only 35 percent of the muralists were female. One reason for the imbalance, he thinks, is that “so many street artists have their roots in graffiti and there are definitely more men doing illegal graffiti than women” though “this may be changing.” In terms of the mural project, Avi says things are “starting to balance out: the last four large-scale murals — those are the really coveted ones — were all painted by women.”

On a sunny afternoon in June, I catch up with Yumi Rodriguez, 25, sitting on a clear plastic tarp at the corner of 161 Street and Broadway, where she is chatting with neighbors and passersby as she paints a Rufous Hummingbird on the shutter of Romulo’s Barber Shop. Yumi is Dominican-American. She grew up across the street, raised by her grandparents. A hand-written sign propped among the paint cans explains in English and Spanish that the mural is in honor of her grandfather, Odalis Alvarez, who worked at the barbershop until two years ago when he suffered a heart attack. Now he is confined to his apartment. His pet name for Yumi, growing up, was Colibrí (hummingbird).

Like many these days, Yumi works several jobs including as a veterinary technician and an illustrator of spiders at the Museum of Natural History. Her scientific training is obvious: in the mural’s center, a hummingbird, still just a sketch in black and white, hangs suspended in midflight surrounded by nine other endangered plants and animals including the Karner blue butterfly, Houston’s goldenrod and the rusty patched bumble bee. In real life, the Rufous Hummingbird is three inches long, but in Yumi’s mural it and all the other creatures loom large: “I’m magnifying these tiny creatures to raise awareness. People say, ‘Oh my God, they’re so beautiful,’ and I go ‘They’re in danger of going extinct, we just never see them.’” One of the insects depicted, the American burying beetle, is currently under threat of being removed from protection by Republican lawmakers who say those protections are inhibiting oil and gas companies.

The plants and animals surrounding Yumi’s hummingbird were chosen not because they are part of its normal habitat but because she finds them “aesthetically pleasing.” She pulls up a photo of one of the plants — northeastern bulrush — on her phone to show me: “They have a brownish pinkish tinge of color which I like. I’m not sure if anybody pollinates these guys,” she says, her voice trailing off. But, she asserts, the point the mural is trying to illustrate — that nature is a web — still stands: without pollinators like the hummingbird and the bee, the plants that depend on them to reproduce will also perish.

Yumi’s sign encourages people to stop and talk. Some even end up helping out — mixing paint or filling in between the lines. Every so often one of the barbers steps out to check on her. “They’re my security guard,” Yumi says. She’s been hassled several times by men, an experience that is perhaps more common for female street artists than is generally acknowledged. Yumi says considerations of safety have slowed down her progress some, but so too have all the positive interactions.

Not long after I arrive, a woman with two young daughters stops by. The mother tells Yumi, “Just this morning my neighbor was saying that every year she sees less and less caterpillars when she sits out on her porch.” A while later, a boy of about eight going by with his mom wants to stop but the mom pulls him on. “I want people to know why I’m doing this,” Yumi says after they go. “The adults are more on the defense about it. Educating the children is great, but they are the next generation. We have to get to the parents. Unfortunately, especially up here, a lot of people don’t have access to education so they don’t know how they are affecting the environment. We are running out of time.”

Some of the murals may be as ephemeral as the species they represent: a building with two large murals on it, for example, is slated for demolition sometime soon, a fact that was known even before painting there got under way. And when a store changes hands, the new owner sometimes decides to have the mural the previous owner had solicited removed. These changes reflect the fact that, like many parts of New York City, northern Manhattan is gentrifying. While most of the artists have chosen to depict only birds, one mural by Gaia entitled “Endangered Harlem” takes up the theme of human displacement as well, referencing European colonialism in the 17th century and the flight of African Americans from the South during the 20th. “The greatest irony of it all,” Gaia concludes on the mural project’s website, “is raising ecological awareness whilst the people of Harlem are endangered of significant gentrification.”

This is Avi’s first public art project, and he’s clearly learning on the job. “I didn’t think about gentrification when I started this project,” he says, even though he grew up just 25 blocks north of his gallery. “I thought, if we paint birds how wonderful that would be. We were focused on beautification, on fixing up dirty walls.” Once, though, “two women told me they felt it was being done by a bunch of intruders who don’t know the history here.” Now, he’s more sensitive to these concerns, which is one of the reasons the project has begun to partner with more organizations, including a city playground, a public school and a community garden.

Still, developing a consensus is not easy. A proposed mural for the Sugar Hill Project, a Broadway Housing Communities (BHC) building for low-income and formerly homeless families at 155th and St. Nicholas Avenue illustrates the point. The mural will overlook a gas station and a children’s museum. “We want to be sensitive. Do the gas station guys like it, does the architect like it, does the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum like it, does the BHC, whose building we are painting, like it?” Choosing an artist for the next mural raises another set of questions. “Some people will be upset that we aren’t choosing the best artist, others will be upset that we aren’t choosing an artist who lives between 135th and 210th streets.”

When Yumi Rodriguez isn’t painting her mural at 161st and Broadway, she works as a veterinary technician and illustrates spiders for the Museum of Natural History.

Stefen Reed, 39, is an African-American artist who was born and raised in the neighborhood. Currently he works with the Children’s Art Carnival, an arts education program that he began attending when he was eight. In the art world, Stefen goes by the name Ayobe, a transcription of the greeting “Hey, yo B!” His painting of an American Oystercatcher, its red bill plunging into a mussel, is one of 10 small canvases displayed in the windows of the Mobil service station at 155th Street and Broadway. There are also two building-size murals on either side of the plaza where people pump gas. In total, 23 birds are represented. Sitting on a stoop nearby, Ayobe and I agree there is a kind of irony in having the spirits of all these climate-endangered birds overlooking a gas station.

Before the Audubon mural project, Ayobe didn’t know there was a bird crisis. He felt good about getting involved, but “then it just reminded me of how people are mistreated and endangered, especially in this neighborhood. It’s a great cause fighting for humanity and for animal rights too. I’m just wondering how we can do both at the same time.”

If you ask people in the neighborhood what they think of the murals, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. People just love them. But if you ask what the murals are about, almost no one will say climate change. Putting only the Audubon url on the murals seems to have been a mistake. “We didn’t put a hashtag because we felt that’s just a selfie-related instruction,” Avi explains. “We felt if people logged in to the website they could really learn. What we’ve learned over the last few years is that most people don’t open the website.”

Audubon’s Jennifer Bogo sees the murals working on a more subtle level. “Even if it hasn’t raised awareness about how birds are threatened by climate change, it’s maybe caused people to think about their own relationship with birds in their own neighborhoods a bit differently. The murals are a great reminder that people and birds use the same spaces and that we both need those spaces to be healthy.”

Ayobe thinks of the project as a sort of backdoor through which the difficult information of climate change may eventually slip in. Artists, he says, “have a responsibility not just to tell our truth but to tell the truth of the environment we live in.” Still, he acknowledges that these days “people are tired of hearing sad stories constantly. After a while, even with myself, it’s like ‘Ok. I don’t want to hear it anymore.’ We just need to find some different ways of reaching people.” For his part, Ayobe plans to help improve his neighbors’ lives by working through the Children’s Art Carnival. “Once that work has some traction,” he told me, “I’ll be able to introduce other ideas like what’s happening to birds to people who don’t know. Maybe seeing a familiar face like mine, they’ll be more receptive to it.”

Back in May when I joined NYC Audubon’s walking tour to see the murals for the first time, most of my fellow tour-goers were birders, many with binoculars slung around their necks. All of us knew that the project was about climate change because it was advertised as such when we signed up for the tour, but even so, we started out in high spirits, enjoying the art and the camaraderie. When we reached the Mobil gas station and were surrounded by the images of so many birds, however, the group fell silent. A woman near me said quietly, “Seems like all the birds we know are endangered.” Someone else wiped away a tear. For a few moments on that windy spring morning, the art made us stop, look up and see something larger than ourselves.

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Photo (top): “Endangered Harlem” by Gaia, at Amsterdam and 153rd St., considers the migration of humans as well as birds. All photos by Elia Gran.