Jim Power, working out his makeshift studio at the 6th Street Community Center, is busy getting ready to leave his mark on the new Astor Place Plaza, using the same creations he’s been planting around the East Village for the last 30 years: mosaics. With the help of his assistant, Julie Powell, he’s scraping, chiseling, and tiling new poles. The product of all this work is something that he and the rest of the East Village are quite used to seeing at this point, so much so that Power’s earned the nickname “Mosaic Man” for the dozens of colorful, chipped tile pieces he’s congealed together, then cemented onto light posts over the years.
In total, seven of his shattered ceramic totems will go up in the newly redesigned Astor Place Plaza which, after more than two years of noisy construction, officially opens September 15. So far, there’s still no Cube, but we’ve seen the arrival of new furniture for the pedestrian plaza and the reinstallation of at least one pole Power had attached his work to. During the opening festivities, when everything’s in place, Power will be on hand for a dedication ceremony as well as a public “Making Mosaics” workshop.
But it hasn’t been an easy road. Power says that he was not consulted by the city about what to do with his poles (or, rather, the city’s poles, from their point of view), which used to dot the corners around the plaza. Instead, officials were planning to just take them down, since they had no use for the lights anymore. After what Power describes as a “massive public outcry,” the city agreed to reinstall his poles and recognize their status as local historical landmarks.
These pieces will serve, Power said, as cultural touchstones for the vibrant artist community in the area, however much it’s dwindled over the years. The posts are a mixture of redesigns and restorations of some of his old mosaics as well as a few completely new ones. With his various mosaic designs, Power’s paying homage to his city and the people who have sacrificed themselves for its betterment— from police officers killed in the line of duty to historically significant New York City figures, including the Astors themselves.
The Village Association, a local community group working with Power on the project, raised an initial $20,000 for materials and other expenses, allowing Power to complete his work—which, he adds, he’ll be done with two days ahead of schedule.
Although it’s a start, Power, who works on the project full-time with Powell, said it’s not enough. Aside from needing more money for more materials and labor, Power bemoaned that the city has done little else to recognize his contributions to the neighborhood.
“I did this for so many years and what do I have to show for it?” Power said, before adding, “At least these will be recognized for what they are.”
Initially, Power’s frustration with the city stemmed from being excluded from the renovation process. He subsequently stopped work on his Mayoral mosaic near Cooper Union– he’d only made it as far as Dinkins. That, Power said, seemed to do the trick, as the city has been “very cooperative” since.
He’s mostly been working with an assortment of local community groups, including Village Alliance and CityLore, who in turn have been working with the Department of Transportation. In order to help him complete the project, the Village Alliance has also put together an Indie GoGo campaign to raise more money. So far, the campaign’s only raised $617 toward its $20,000 goal.
As for the renovations themselves, Power has high hopes: “[Astor Place] has died many times over and went to Williamsburg or what have you, but this is going to be the revitalization of it.” The Mosaic Man firmly believes that Astor Place is, and will always be, an “artist colony” and he’s excited to see the kind of people that will be drawn to it once it’s more welcoming to pedestrians.
Power, who’s working on these mosaics despite a hip problem that will eventually require surgery, said these will likely be the last poles he ever does. While he says he’d like to do more workshops and figure out a way to get other people involved in the arts, Power figures that, after 30 years of making these mosaics, he’s due for a rest. But it doesn’t need to be a very long one: “If they want me to do the whole city, I’m going to need half a day off,” Power said. “But I can do it.”