Maggie Tobin has been working hard to beautify Kensington under the auspices of the West Kensington Action Group (WKAG), and as of Labor Day weekend one of its offerings — four of five trompe l’oeil panels depicting open windows — were installed along the east facing windows of Gan Yisroel, 13 Church Ave at Chester Ave.
Huh? Paintings of windows over the windows? Well, from the outside, those windows had been boarded up by plywood long enough for the paint on them to be flaking off. From the inside of the yeshiva, Tobin said that the apertures had been drywalled and, for all intent and purposes, simply part of the wall itself for the students and teachers there. Outta sight, outta mind as the saying goes.
But for Tobin, the boards were an eyesore. And, as a resident dwelling no more than fifty yards away on Chester Ave for six years, it was neither outta sight nor outta earshot. See, across the street the mosque, Masjid But Al-Islam, has been blasting their call to prayer five times per day from a PA system.
Tobin said that when the mosque is quieter, “it’s been lovely,” but as of late the uninvited dogma penetrates her living room around dusk as she tries to decompress over a cup of ginger tea. Neither city ordinance nor our Council Member has been able to back her up in regulating what continues to be unrestricted decibel limits on the books for religious institutions.
Tobin, a secular resident caught between the ugly and the loud, felt that neither side of the street seems concerned for how their institution impacts the uninitiated neighbors of Kensington.
And so, in a flash of inspiration that was shared off-handedly with Community Board 12 Chairman Yidel Pearlstein, she went into action when Pearlstein told her that he sat on the board of the yeshiva and would put in a good word for her and her idea. She quickly drafted her proposal for transforming the boarded up windows into their current state, and her plan was approved.
On her own dime and after three weeks of work, on September 2, Tobin along with Abdul Karimi of the Kensington Plaza Steawards and me, JC Martinez-Sifre, coordinator for the Kensington Trash Mob, convened at 9am at that corner and didn’t stop until the skies grayed over and began to precipitate around 5:30pm.
Jean Camara, 25, had come out of the mosque afternoon prayers concluded, and observed the three of us at our labors.
“It’s pretty amazing what you guys did,” he said. “It makes the whole street look different. The building used to be unpleasant.”
To his knowledge, what was behind the boarded up windows of the yeshiva was nothing — empty rooms; abandoned space.
“It brings people together — art does,” said Tobin last week. And, it has not gone unnoticed by more than one resident that the call to prayer has been significantly turned down at the mosque since her art was installed.
But while responses to the public art installation are still coming in, Maggie Tobin hopes that they, like the open windows she painted, open up a much needed conversation.
“Because everyone is so segregated, we have not had a unified voice for us to have our fair share,” she said. “I would like to see more of an inclusive community.”
That is, Kensington’s self-imposed segregation between the Muslim, Jewish and secular constituents have left it as an after-thought in borough politics.
“I do think that art and caring for our neighborhood is a road to a better Kensington,” said Tobin.