Neighborhood Artist Comes Home To Make Her Block A Brighter Place

Neighborhood Artist Comes Home To Make Her Block A Brighter Place
“There’s a sad lack of good, bright art around here for some reason,” she said. “There’s more in Ditmas Park proper” said Artist Al Najjar. (Photo by Ditmas Park Corner)

Kensington neighbor Al Najjar, of Al Zork’s Strange Art, has been painting an abandoned FDNY call box on the corner of East 3rd Street and Avenue F, on and off, for about three weeks. On weekdays after work, she paints until the sun goes down.

Al lives on the next block over, and has been seeing this box ever since she was a kid.

The abandoned FDNY post on East 3rd Street is a prototypical call box, many of which date back to the 1870s, says Forgotten NY. The statuesque box has a lit torch sculpture at its apex, and some models feature an orange bulb used in the 1910s. Though this box has long been abandoned, the FDNY reported there are 15,000 functional fire boxes throughout New York City, and though they receive 2.6% of their calls from those boxes, 88% of them are false alarms, according to a 2013 Untapped Cities article.

As for the abandoned relics, with a little ingenuity and artistry, they can be more than just rotting furniture — they can be places for public art and dialogue.

“I saw this [call box], and it’s really so beautiful underneath that rust,” Al said. “All that detail gets lost, they don’t make them this pretty anymore. I decided I’d try to make it visible.”

(Photo by Ditmas Park Corner)

Al is an artist and visual storyteller on a mission to enliven every day spaces. “It’s something that catches people off guard and is a little strange. I want people to know that weird and fantastical things can still exist, and not everything has turned into concrete gray cubes. It’s kind of my mission in life,” she told us one evening while she painted on East 3rd street.

(Photo by Ditmas Park Corner)

“I’ve always liked art forms that are accessible and not just hanging in galleries. To me, public art and illustration and animation are things that people have access to,” she said.

Al has met a lot of her neighbors through this project. “I’ve had lots of people approach me and ask what I was doing, and lots of kids come over to help.” In fact, while we stood on the corner many neighbors took notice. “That’s beautiful,” someone called from a bicycle. Moments later, kids ran up excitedly and asked if they could help. Al squirted some paint onto a small plastic plate and handed them brushes.

(Photo by Ditmas Park Corner)

“Many neighborhood kids painted the initial colors, the yellow and green, and blue around the bottom. I invite kids who want to join in on whatever public project I’m working on, encourage a kids’ creativity,” she said.

Al used latex paint for the large swaths and acrylic paint for the details. “My goal is to make every section a different color — all the details, the frames — when all of that is done, painting something in here,” she pointed to the collection of empty cat food cans on the hollow inside.

Photo by Jonas Read
“I believe that you can’t call yourself an artist unless you’re making art” -Al Najjar. (Photo by Jonas Read)

People have expressed — almost — unanimous support for brightening the block. “Once a whole van of police officers showed up and they said someone called in a complaint. But I told them I was painting, and the cops said, ‘just keep doing that.'” It’s such an approachable project, Al wondered why someone wouldn’t just talk to her about it, if they had a complaint.

“I just find the whole situation very amusing,” Al said.

Al recently graduated from college, where she majored in visual arts. She did a lot of illustration, animation, and self-published two kids books. “All I wanted to do was make art. I was sneaking around old buildings and making murals places.”

Page from Al’s print book, “Mostly Miserable, Sometimes Glorious “

But Al chooses to keep a low profile because she wants the art to speak for itself. “Someone once told me that as an artist you’re either trying to market yourself or your work. But it’s my work that I want to matter,” she said.

For her next public art project, Al has her eye on a vacant white wall on McDonald Avenue, and is still figuring out how to get access to it.

To explore more of Al’s work, find her collaborative web comic here, and her artist Facebook page here.


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