Community embraces Forest Hills history mural
by Michael Perlman
Apr 11, 2017 | 11639 views | 0 0 comments | 215 215 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Over the course of two days last week, a neglected underpass on Ascan Avenue was transformed into a work of art titled “A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens.”

After the positive response last summer to the Ramones mural on Continental Avenue by street artists Crisp and Praxis, natives of Australia and Columbia respectively, this columnist approached them about creating a second mural.

The new mural pays homage to some of the founders of Forest Hills Gardens, including financier and railroad executive Russell Sage and philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who with her husband’s fortune helped establish the Russell Sage Foundation, which purchased 142 acres for Forest Hills Gardens in 1909.

Also profiled is “King Farmer” Ascan Backus, regarded as one of the most successful 19th century commercial farmer in the northeast, when Forest Hills was known as Whitepot.

Also honored is Forest Hills Gardens’ principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury and urban planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

Among the mural’s goals is to give historical context to the people behind the names of places like Russell Sage JHS 190, Olivia Park, and Ascan Avenue.

“At Russell Sage JHS, I never realized who Russell Sage was, but I always knew that if my school or any street is named after someone, nine out of ten times you can do your research and be wowed by their accomplishments,” said Waice Shah.

During the mural's creation, one passerby later returned to share a photo of Ascan Backus II, Backus’ grandson, while a young child recommended highlighting the “1909” marker on the underpass.

“The support and positive feedback from the local community that passed by while we were painting was overwhelming,” said Crisp. “It was lovely seeing its impact on all ages, from toddlers pointing things out to their parents all the way up to a 96-year-old reflecting on his time in the area.”

Local residents and businesses helped shape the content of the mural, and contributed nearly $4,000 since December 2016. Sponsors include West Side Tennis Club, Ridgewood Savings Bank, Trylon Vet Care, Exo Café, Ripe, Knish Nosh, London Lennie’s, Belle Arti Center for the Arts, Oliloli Studio, Aigner Chocolates, Banter, Portofino, and Cipollina Gourmet.

“The West Side Tennis Club is proud to have supported this project, particularly during our 125th anniversary,” said Bea Hunt, who co-chairs the 125th Anniversary Committee. “The mural is a brilliant combination of the people instrumental in creating this community and unique historic architectural elements, and it will raise appreciation of these great pioneers and our rich history.”

Fundraisers for the mural were held at Knish Nosh, Roast n Co, and La Boulangerie.

“As I like to say, Forest Hills is a small village, and part of it is to interact and help each other,” said La Boulangerie co-owner Francois Danielo. “Those responsible are creating a soul for our village.”

At the latter two restaurants, Marvel and DC Comics artist John Stanisci sold prints of his work and sketched characters to help raise money. Additionally, Century 21 provided gift cards and wreaths for donors during the holiday season.

“Partnerships are a great tool to make the community stronger and well known, and we feel proud that we participated,” said Roast n Co co-owner Hichem Ammous.

Nearby residents also praised the mural.

“It’s a pleasure to learn new things and keep an eye on our quality of life,” said Susan Weinstein of Forest Hills. “Now people will learn more about why the Forest Hills Gardens was founded and what it was founded as.”

Kew Gardens resident Seth Welins uses the underpass often.

“I would often walk through the underpass very quickly, but the finished product will encourage me to slow down a bit and admire the artwork,” he said. “It’s also an educational resource and a win-win for everyone.”

Richmond Hill resident Shamim Arman said the mural links yesterday to today in an artistic way.

“If we have the space, art is the best way of providing information to many people,” Arman said.

Mickey Leigh, brother of the late Joey Ramone, also stopped by to check out the mural.

“I much prefer a mural than an abstract design of bird droppings,” he joked. “I am working my way towards obtaining the status of these accomplished people.”
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