A report by DAVID W. DUNLAP for The New York Times. For the original report and a gallery of photos follow the link below.
For more than four decades, the yoked oxen have lumbered toward Columbus Avenue through the towering grasslands along West 71st Street, pulling a cart piled high with sugarcane. A young guajiro has stood nearby — momentarily at rest from his toils — gazing not into space but into his own future.
Nine months ago, the future looked dark.
That guajiro, the peasant farmer shown on the high relief mural outside the former Victor’s Cafe at 240 Columbus Avenue, is (or was) Victor del Corral of Guanabacoa, Cuba. In 1957, Mr. del Corral immigrated to the United States. Six years later, he opened Victor’s Cafe. Craig Claiborne told readers of “The New York Times Guide to Dining Out in New York” in the late 1960s: “Anyone with a passion for Cuban food would look hard in this city to find a more auspicious source than Victor’s.”
Victor’s was a neighborhood institution, where Cuban expatriates and Lincoln Center concertgoers could feast on seafood stew, white bean soup and roast pig. In 1971, Mr. del Corral commissioned a relief mural, in plaster and marble dust, from the sculptor Arturo Martín Garcia.
“Victor’s vision was to remind Cuban exiles living in New York that one must work hard to make it in life, but at the same time to never forget one’s roots,” said his granddaughter Monica Zaldivar, who now runs the cafe. It has been at 236 West 52nd Street since 1980.
Subsequent tenants of the Columbus Avenue address preserved the mural. But when Greg Hunt and his partners came along this year with plans to reopen the spot as Cafe Tallulah, they made it plain that — in their minds, at least — the artwork was doomed.
“The location has been an eyesore for years and we’re investing close to $2 million to renovate it and make it wonderful again,” Mr. Hunt said in February. “I don’t want to open with two decrepit, sappy cows.”
Preservationists looked at the beasts differently; and not just because it was obvious at a quick glance that they were not cows.
Manuel R. Castedo, president of the nonprofit Cuban Cultural Center of New York, a nonprofit organization, said, “If the mural is, explicitly, an invaluable imprint of Cubans in the great metropolis, on a larger scale it is a reminder of all other immigrant communities who have prospered in New York City and made it their home, including the artist himself.”
Mr. Martín was graduated in 1949 from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, in Marianao, a suburb of Havana. He died in 1985. If his work is not the equal, say, of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s in Boston, it still has an undeniable vitality. And it certainly captures the spirit of the Upper West Side 40 years ago.
“The work is emblematic of a notable moment in this neighborhood’s larger history,” said Arlene Simon, president of the preservation group Landmark West! A representative of the group testified against Mr. Hunt’s plans at a hearing of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Feb. 21.
The matter was before the commission because 240 Columbus Avenue is in the Upper West Side-Central Park West Historic District. A facade alteration like the one Mr. Hunt proposed is subject to the commission’s approval. It was clear at the hearing that some commission members believed that a case could be made for requiring Mr. Hunt to keep the mural in place as a record of Victor’s.
“This came up as one of the pre-eminent businesses that helped to save the Upper West Side,” one of the commission members, Michael Devonshire, said at the hearing. He added, “I think that this mural is representative of that resurgence.”
Whether Mr. Hunt would have prevailed or not at the commission became moot when Cafe Tallulah reappeared in March to say it was keeping the mural. Robert B. Tierney, the commission chairman, told Mr. Hunt and his partners: “It’s very important to save the mural, and I’m glad the whole process has produced this and that you’ve chosen to go in that direction.”
On its Facebook page in June, Cafe Tallulah said of the old mural: “Although we weren’t crazy about it at first, over time it grew on us. We gradually came to the realization (especially over the last few days) that it is unique, quirky and fun.”
Recently, the mural has been transformed from dull brown to dazzling white by a primer coat that sharpens every point on each sugar cane stalk and transforms the grass strands from a muddle to a biomorphic fantasy. (The final color will be off-white.)
“It really is wonderful,” said Ms. Zaldivar, Victor del Corral’s granddaughter. “I live in the area, a block away, and I was delighted to see it was restored.”
When Ms. Simon of Landmark West! learned that Cafe Tallulah would open Dec. 1, she said, “I’m going to be 76 that day, so I definitely have to go celebrate.” After an instant’s happy reflection, she added, “There may be a God after all.”
For the original report go to http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/a-scene-from-cuban-sugarcane-fields-will-endure-on-columbus-avenue/