John James Audubon would hardly recognize Washington Heights as the area where he lived the last 10 years of his life. His 20-acre estate along the Hudson River, roughly between 155th and 158th Streets, had been flanked largely by farmland; today, of course, the area is robust with shops, restaurants, and apartment buildings. But Audubon would recognize some of the murals adorning a number of those buildings. Oversize paintings of American birds, they are part of the Audubon Mural Project.
A collaboration of Gitler & _____ Gallery and the National Audubon Society, the project began in 2014. The original plan was to highlight a dozen or so of the birds most endangered by climate change, but with the release of the society’s “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report” in September 2014, the scope expanded, with the goal being to commission murals of all 314 species in the report.
So far 74 murals have been painted in Harlem and Washington Heights, on building facades and metal security gates; the latter images are visible only when the stores they belong to are closed. One can easily take in all 11 Washington Heights murals in a single walking tour, beginning on 155th Street:
- 575 West 155th Street, just off Broadway. Artist and educator Lunar New Year covered four stories with a swallow-tailed kite and a dozen other birds threatened by climate change, including the Baltimore oriole, the golden eagle, and the scarlet tanager.
A swallow-tailed kite and other birds by Lunar New Year. Image: Mike Fernandez/Audubon
- 3740 Broadway. Just steps away, a gas station hosts a majestic monotone portrait of a zone-tailed hawk painted by Aaron Zimmerman.
- 3750 Broadway. Looking down on Zimmerman’s hawk is a four-story-tall fish crow painted by Italian street artist Hitnes. This vibrant black, orange, and yellow mural is not Hitnes’s only tribute to Audubon. In the summer of 2015 he traveled through 15 states, following an expedition Audubon himself undertook to record birds throughout the South and the mid-Atlantic states; to commemorate the trip Hitnes painted 15 murals along the way.
Hitnes’s depiction of a fish crow is visible from more than a block away. Image: Mike Fernandez/Audubon
- 3764 Broadway (between West 156th and West 157th Streets): The security gate of Salvadoran restaurant La Libertad now sports an image of the house finch by mural artist Mr. Mustart.
- 3768 Broadway: Two doors away, an almost folkloric painting of a Western tanager covers another security gate, this one belonging to a dental clinic. The artist, Yu-baba, is perhaps the only Belarusian female artist creating urban murals today.
- 3767 Broadway: Across the street, a Brewer’s blackbird marches across the security gates of a dry-cleaner, courtesy of Ukraine-born Israeli artist Klone.
- 3777 Broadway: A pair of boat-tailed grackles by New York native Ezo Wippler adorn another security gate.
- 663 West 158th Street (between Riverside and West Riverside Drives): A colorful Williamson’s sapsucker enlivens a gray brick wall, courtesy of street artist ATM, who has painted numerous other species of endangered birds throughout London as well.
- 3803 Broadway (between West 158th and West 159th Streets): Bronx-born Yazmeen Collazo depicted a brown-capped rosy finch in all its feathery glory on the security gate of a nail salon. Collazo was familiar with finches before undertaking the commission: She grew up with a pair as pets. The same address is also home to J&G Wines & Liquors; its security gate features Ralph Serrano’s depiction of a Baird’s sparrow, in a style reminiscent of a minimalist stained-glass window.
- 3841 Broadway (between West 160th and West 161st Streets): It’s appropriate that another security gate, this one to a hardware store, is home to Paul Nassar’s depiction of a spotted owl, since like owls, this mural is visible only in evenings, when the store is closed.
- 601 West 162nd Street (between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue): ATM also painted the red-faced warbler on the side of this apartment building.
A red-faced warbler by ATM. Image: Mike Fernandez/Audubon
- 432 West 163rd Street (between Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues): An almost-psychedelic depiction of a tricolored heron amid fishes and other aquatic life looms four stories high along the side of a building. The artist, Iena Cruz, developed his style of pairing spray-paint stenciling and fine brushwork while a student at Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts of Brera.