Our Story

Our story begins in 1998, inside Liberty High School for Newcomers on Eighteenth Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Lee Brozgol, an artist, social worker, art teacher and Lower East Side resident, finished a large mosaic mural, titled Liberty – Our Story, in collaboration with several students. The mural is installed in the school’s entryway, greeting students, faculty and parents with scenes of diversity, resilience and pride. The location of the mural is not coincidental. Its uplifting and welcoming message tells various stories of immigration. Liberty High School for Newcomers is a unique school in that its student body consists of students who recently arrived in the United States. The school specializes in teaching Multilingual Learners (MLL) and English Language Learners (ELL). Because the student community is made up of individuals from many different countries, the mural that Brozgol and the student artists created reflects a multidimensional view of New York City’s cultural landscape.

Lee Brozgol, Liberty – Our Story, 1998, ceramic, Liberty High School Academy for Newcomers, Manhattan​​. Courtesy of the artist and Public Art for Public Schools.

In one vignette, the foreground contains the iconic arm of the Statue of Liberty, with her torch held high in the air. Behind the torch, a plane flies by; below, are a multitude of sea vessels, including an eighteenth century galleon, a modern day ocean liner and an Indigenous canoe. This scene symbolizes the many varied paths that different cultural groups have taken to arrive on the shores of the city. In the background, there is the Brooklyn Bridge, another iconic symbol for immigration, as the bridge enabled newcomers to seek a better and more economical life in Brooklyn, due to rising rent and the unsavory conditions of Manhattan dwellings (see: Scherer, 2015). The bridge has more recently been the site of protests in support of more humane and just rights for immigrants.

In another part of the mosaic, rectangular tiles depict various activities, scenery and iconography that is reflective of the many cultural backgrounds within the school’s student body. Each student is also represented through their self portrait.

Lee Brozgol, Liberty – Our Story, 1998, ceramic, Liberty High School Academy for Newcomers, Manhattan​​. Courtesy of the artist and Public Art for Public Schools.

Liberty – Our Story, slightly resembles another collaborative mosaic that Brozgol created in 1994, called the Greenwich Village Murals, which are permanently on view in the Christopher Street-Sheridan Square station of the New York City Subway system. This project, like Liberty – Our Story, was realized in collaboration with local school students (I previously wrote about the Subway murals here). The partnership between a professional artist and public school students, provided fresh perspectives on historical, social and cultural narratives.

Both of these projects were intergenerational learning experiences. Brozgol presented the students with a little bit of the historical framework behind New York City’s many inhabitants. He encouraged dialogues with the students about the Indigenous origins and radical social transformations that paved the way for progressive change; as well as important figures from the people of the Lenape diaspora to Emma Goldman. The students then re-presented this history through aesthetic renderings, while also adding their own personal and familial history into the mix.

The many dynamic contributions made by immigrants, has made New York City a metropolis that reflects a truly global experience. Today, there are people living in the city who have come from over 180 different countries. A mosaic is an apt medium for these multicultural depictions. Many of the tiles within a mosaic are different sizes, shapes and colors. When arranged together they create a vibrant unified picture, but each one on its own is important in the process. This is a potent metaphor for the 180 plus nations that represent New York as one of the major cosmopolitan locations in the world. Viewing these works of art on both a macro and micro level is necessary for understanding the myriad narratives of each person, culture and community that continues to contribute to the vibrant immigrant experience.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Core Principles for Supporting Emergent Multilingual Learners (EMLLs)

The Multilingual Learner Project’s Curricular Materials

Scherer, Jeff. “Brooklyn’s History of Immigrants,” Brownstoner, 25 July 2015. https://www.brownstoner.com/brooklyn-life/brooklyns-history-of-immigrants/

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