Harlem is an internationally known neighborhood with many famous residents. One such person is artist Franco Gaskin, known to fans and other admirers as Franco the Great. If you have ever ventured down 125th street, you will see gates with images of Black historical figures drawn on them. Franco originally started these paintings to beautify a quite drab strip of 125th street. Having done over 100 gates, this artist contributed in a major way to the aesthetic and cultural flavor of Harlem.
Franco continues to do so, drawing tourists from around the world to the famous 125th street strip. As a result of the international profile of Harlem, Franco the Great has shored up a global following. Yet, the renown artist still has a deep affinity for the neighborhood. “Harlem is the only place I really know,” said Gaskin to the HarlemStage audience at a Wednesday evening screening of a film on the painter. 125 Franco Blvd. shows the work of Franco, his history in Harlem, and how the shifting dynamic of Harlem has affected his ability to continue his life’s work.
As is the case with every aspect of Black life in Harlem, outside economic forces have upset the neighborhood’s artistry and cultural aspects. Newer businesses coming into the area have discarded the gates, and some use the newer see through gates in their place. Now, there are 26 gate paintings remaining done by Franco. Those in the community interested in preserving this part of the neighborhood’s history are working on salvaging what remains to be stored in the park near the Triboro Bridge. Hopefully, with the necessary amount of attention, this goal will be feasible.
To learn more about the artwork of Franco the Great, go to Franco The Great ‘s website.
-Marc W. Polite