“Queens is the Future” stands for a modest mural on a handball court in a schoolyard in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Artists and native New Yorkers Eve Biddle and Joshua Frankel painted the mural in 2007 while living in Long Island City. In its original version, the depiction of an elevated train served as a proxy for Queens itself, the city’s most diverse borough. “There was something magical about the original design of a train taking off to become a rocket,” Frankel told Hyperallergic in a joint interview with Biddle. (The couple now split their time between Brooklyn and upstate New York, where Biddle is a co-founder of the Wassaic Project.)
As the New Yorker reported in 2014 that Sony Pictures “appropriated” the mural (as the artists put it) without the artist’s permission for a Spider-Man film. A Sony-hired artist, working without permission from Biddle or Frankel, intentionally colored in their sparse, open design so kids in the garden could clearly see handballs — usually blue or black. And Sony put Spidey in the spotlight.
“When Sony added Spider-Man lifting the train, all that agency was lost; It was then about the neighborhood being saved by a superhero,” Frankel said. And that wasn’t the story that neither the artists nor the neighborhood wanted to tell.
The mural soon fell into disrepair. “Right after Sony painted it, it started chipping,” Frankel said. The artists posit that the film production designers did not, like Biddle and Frankel, research and test which colors would stand up not only to the scorching sun, driving rain and snowfall of New York City, but also to the bouncing balls of handball. “We’ve been to handball courts all over New York City and talked to the people who restored Keith Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’ mural, which is also on a handball court,” Biddle said. The artists tested and finally settled on an acrylic paint that is often used on ship hulls due to its exceptional durability.
In 2021, following a massive fire in Jackson Heights, with the enthusiastic participation of Biddle and Frankel, the Queens Long Distance Running Club used an image of the original mural on t-shirts for a charity run to support the nearly 300 families affected or injured by the fire dislocated. The popularity of the t-shirts prompted the community, via IS 145 director Ivan Rodriguez, to request the artists to restore the mural to its original design.
Just as the couple was preparing to paint, an artist named Erick Teran, who lives in Jackson Heights but was unaware that the restoration was underway, asked permission to paint a mural on the empty back of the detached wall. Biddle and Frankel introduced Teran to the school’s administration, which not only welcomed the artist, whose work has focused on cityscapes, to add his own mural, but hired him as a substitute art teacher last spring.
Both the restoration and the new mural were funded with help from the IS 145 Parents-Teachers Association; the Jackson Heights Beautification Group; Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas; State Senator Jessica Ramos; Angelo Baque, Queens Museum board member and designer of fashion brand AWAKE; commercial real estate company Project Queens; and Queensboro Restaurant, which has an ongoing grassroots fundraising campaign.
And both murals in the IS 145 schoolyard will be celebrated at a community-wide block party on July 31 during the weekly Jackson Heights Farmers’ Market (9 a.m. to 12 p.m.).
These murals are among others underway in Queens this season. Artist Zeehan Wazed, who has painted a handful of murals across the city, is working on one at a Queens mosque. And this weekend, artist Julia Chiang is completing two large-scale works — a 20-meter mural at the Rockaway Hotel + Spa and a 12-meter mural at a retirement home called Rockaway Seagirt Residences. She designed both in a sort of multi-level mirroring, drawing inspiration from palettes, textures and patterns from intergenerational community art workshops she held, where local students, families and seniors created art inspired by Chiang’s work.
“A public art project has a powerful impact because of repeated viewing, unlike a painting that you might see in a museum every once in a while,” Frankel said. He noted that at this week’s dedication ceremony, there were adults for whom the original Queens is the Future was a daily touchstone of their childhood.
The saga of the mural “Queens is the Future” shows “how we collectively assert control over the shape of a city,” Frankel added, drawing parallels to opera A wonderful assignmentwhich premieres this fall and which he co-created, about the battle between archenemies Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (with a libretto by former US Poetry Prize winner Tracy K. Smith).
Frankel added, “It’s about who decides what to build, what to destroy, and what to keep.”