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Tillie’s seeks mural support

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If a Clinton Hill muralist and a local coffee shop owner can convince preservationists of the merit of their idea, the maroon-colored wall of Tillie’s fronting on Vanderbilt Avenue will bear a multi-colored map of the neighborhood, on which residents will be able to paint dots indicating where they live.

“The mural I’m planning for Tillie’s will [enable us to] see how we really live on top of each other,” said the mural’s creator Ellie Balk.

There is one fly in the paint: because Tillie’s sits at the edge of a the Fort Greene Historic District (at the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb avenues), the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission must first approve the design. Such alterations of historic sites often become prickly issues.

Sharon Barnes, of the Clinton Hill Association, cautioned that allowing the mural in a historic district could lead to an avalanche of similar out-of-character alterations.

“A lot of artwork that is proposed is very nice and agreeable and there’s a temptation to say yes,” said Barnes. “But in a landmarked neighborhood, one has to be careful about precedent, because, ultimately, it won’t look like a historic district.”

Barnes cited the mural depicting a chef that went up recently on the side of Chez Oscar, the popular DeKalb Avenue boite at the corner of Adelphi Street.

“The painting is really charming,” said Barnes. “But it has to be limited. And one man’s art is another man’s graffiti.”

Even so, Balk remains hopeful. After all, her recent mural on St. James Place and Gates Avenue, painted by about 100 community members during 10 hours of a recent block party, was a great success.

“These are very much community murals,” said Balk. “I was putting a varnish on it, and all these kids were walking by with their parents and saying, ‘Mommy, I did that.’”

Balk hopes to have the Tillie’s mural painted by Sept. 7 to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of her art at the coffee shop.

Her proposal is pending approval by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which declined comment for this story.

But Balk thinks she has the right mural in the right location.

“Vanderbilt Avenue separates Clinton Hill from Fort Greene, and Tillie’s was the first coffee shop in the neighborho­od,” she explained.

“It’s the pinnacle of community gathering, it’s an important street. It just seemed perfectly right to do it there.”

According to Balk, Patricia Mulcahy, the owner of Tillie’s, supports of the project. While Mulcahy could not be reached for comment, one of her employees sounded thrilled by the idea.

“Oh, that’s so cool!” he said. “I work here and I didn’t even know that!”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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