Downtown fears resurface with art sign

By Syd Steinhardt

Downtown Express photo by Brett C Vermilyea

This painting of a fake sign triggered strong reactions in Tribeca.

More than a week after it was first painted, the graphic yellow and black warning on the side of 17 Leonard St. still evinces mixed feelings.

The fake sign — a 10-foot by 14-foot acrylic painting with the words “Caution low flying planes,” accompanied by a silhouette of raging flames — was first noticed on the morning of Saturday, May 10. Its creator, Brooklyn artist James Peterson, slipped fliers under each of the three tenants’ doors. He then came by and “wanted to talk about it,” said tenant Chris Roilph.

Peterson said that the idea for the painting, which received national media attention last week, was sparked by the rumor that a third hijacked plane was headed to New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The piece was about the horrors of the day,” he told Downtown Express. “It wasn’t a memorial to the dead. It was about the emotional response of the day.”

As if by cruel fate, the sign’s existence was reported two days before an airplane flew uncomfortably low over Lower Manhattan. A government-chartered Continental Airlines jet carrying soldiers returning from Iraq descended to an altitude of 3,000 feet to afford the soldiers a closer look at the Statue of Liberty.

Both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly voiced strong objections to the plane’s maneuver. The mayor’s office said that it had received notice of only two minutes before the plane appeared over New York Harbor.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that requests of this kind, which were permitted by the air traffic control center in Garden City, L.I., would no longer be granted.

Peterson’s painting did more than evoke the fears of 9/11. It prompted complaints to the Landmarks Preservation Commission by neighbors of the building, which is within the Tribeca West Historic District. As a result of an inspection by an L.P.C. staffer, the commission issued a warning letter to the building’s owner on May 13.

Any alteration to a building in a historic district without authorization is considered a violation, said Diane Jackier, Landmarks’ spokesperson. Within 20 working days, the owner can either correct the violation or apply to have it legalized, she said.

Peterson admitted to painting the sign without permission from the owner, identified by the Daily News as 17 Leonard St. Inc. “I think the owner is in California,” said Mirsad Nikovic, the doorman in the Juilliard Building across the street at 18 Leonard St.

Not all residents objected to the painting. “I think it’s kinda cool,” said Jean Feinberg, who lives across the street.

Others were not so forgiving.

“I think it’s a little morbid,” said another Juilliard tenant, an art gallery owner.

Alan Shapiro, a Department of Transportation computer specialist who was seeing the mural for the first time on Monday afternoon, counted himself among the painting’s critics.

“It’s definitely tacky,” he said, “considering what happened down the road.”


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