“Good Neighbors” is an on-going photographic ode to a Manhattan Valley neighborhood. The project began in 2010 with the first "Family Days" events hosted by the Columbus-Amsterdam BID that closed off Amsterdam Avenues local streets. Following years brought street closings one or two days a year, every year. The streets became a gathering place, it expanded our homes beyond the walls of our apartments. In 2020, the NYC Open Streets program closed off these same blocks every weekend. In the midst of the pandemic, this project became newly significant with the recognition that community and connection is something vital to our well-being and quality of life. It is clear that we need each other and that with this small recognition, we can provide signals of safety, signals of peace, that help us to feel comfortable in all of our communal spaces - the street, the local businesses, our parks.
A recent exhibition of “Good Neighbors” coincided with a public art wall installation of Corporal Anibal Aviles Jr. He is the namesake for a local playground - story about a boy who grew up on in the neighborhood, who was captain of the 1962 Junior High School Basketball Team, and who just a few years later, in 1966, lost his life serving as a Marine during his second tour of the Vietnam War. Anibal’s story, one about his era’s challenges, helps us to recognize the adversities of our time, and proposes an ideal for the way we can affect one another at home, in the neighborhood, in the wider world. The boy who this playground is named for, Anibal Aviles, was born on April 11, 1946. He moved to New York City when he was 2 years old with his mother and father from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico on Nov 3, 1948. He graduated from Booker T. Washington J.H.S. 54, just across the street, in 1962. He was the captain of the school basketball team, as well as a gifted athlete in local Catholic Youth Organizations. According to friends that knew him, he knew that he would join the Marines at an early age. It has been suggested that this could have been because, despite being very bright, English was not his first language; he found little support that would allow him to succeed. He felt that he had few options for his future. He was older than his classmates, graduating the 9th grade when he was 16 (most graduate at 14 or 15). By his J.H.S. Senior year, he had decided that he was not going to pursue a High School education, and followed his dream to enlist in the Marines on April 17, 1963, six days after his 17th birthday. He participated in two tours in Vietnam. He started the second tour in 1966 and achieved the rank of Corporal. His military occupation or “specialty” was Rifleman. His service number assignment was 2031580, attached to 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, M Company Corp. During his service in the Vietnam War, Marine Corps Corporal Aviles experienced a traumatic event which ultimately resulted in loss of life on March 5, 1966. Recorded circumstances attributed to: death due to hostile action, small arms fire. Incident location: Chau Ngai 3 E of Hill 50, South Vietnam, Quang Ngai province. Anibal is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.His name is inscribed at VVM Wall, Panel 05e, Line 113, including commendations with a purple heart (https://www.honorstates.org/index.php?id=260515).
This playground was dedicated to Corp. Aviles’ memory in 1969. Neighbors and classmates have shared that this was at the suggestion of the Parks employee, a kind of father figure to the kids of the neighborhood, who kept an eye out for truancy and was a supportive presence. “Parky” is what they called him. A friend of Anibal’s remembered two people: Eddie Young and Douglas Mercado. With time, those that knew Anibal have moved and passed away. This memorial, and the work around the “Good Neighbors” project in general, hopes to restore what is possible of some of the meanings of Anibal’s life and the ethics that this playground is built upon. First, is his patriotic service in the Marines, an important recognition for all who serve, and more for Latinos, a group who are often underserved and criticized for lack of civic participation, which is not the case. Anibal is not an exception. There are thousands of Latino and African-American individuals who continue to serve, and with that service demonstrate the highest form of patriotism - their lives for their country. Second, is as a symbol of the era that he grew up in: a New York City whose demographics were shifting from Irish, Italians and Jewish, to a generation of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and South Americans - all of whom were leaving their countries due to politics and economics. It has been said that this Manhattan Valley neighborhood was, in those times, called “West Spanish Harlem”. A mirror of the East side neighborhood; sandwiching Northern Central Park between two Spanish-speaking communities. Third, is remembering Anibal as a neighborhood kid. It brings to mind a time of stickball in the streets and open fire hydrants on hot days. Anibal was well known as an athlete. He was the captain of the Junior High School Basketball team. The reference image we’ve chosen for Mark Romero’s painting in this memorial is not his more severe Marine Corps photograph, instead it is a close-up of his Booker T. Washington Junior High School Basketball team yearbook photo. Here, he holds a ball with his graduation year “1962” written across it. He smiles innocently, happily and with a sense of pride. You can see his strength, his intelligence and warmth. In the original, he is surrounded by teammates, all of whom share this feeling. They are 14-16 years old and are looking forward to their futures, while representing this moment of their collective team spirit. We wanted him to be placed in this context of play and teamwork. It is this boy, who was admired and cared for, that we want to remember. He came from a loving family. He had two siblings (a younger sister and brother) and a loving parents. He was a natural leader: at basketball, at stickball, and track he exuded those skills of leadership. And he was a strong leader because of the home he came from, not just his apartment building on West 108th Street, but the “home” that was his neighborhood. A boy who came from a loving family, great friends, physical strength, humor, courage, intelligence, a neighborhood that had a community with families of similar boys and girls. He was a great person who took that to his service for his country. The NYC skyline in this installation, painted by Atu Ram and Bernardo Palombo, connects past and present: the painting of Anibal to the images of our neighbors taken over the last twelve years. It offers an image of a town with a strong past and a hopeful future. One of equanimity between neighbors, who may only know each other tangentially, yet become signs of being “at home” because our streets are extensions of our apartments. With this information viewers, playground visitors and nearby residents will have a chance to connect to this dedication that contextualizes Anibal’s memory as a familiar story: he was a neighborhood kid, a “Good Neighbor”, a recognizable person, a presence of “home”. Just like we are too.
“Good Neighbors” portraits: j. maya luz
Painted Skyline: Atu Ram and Bernardo Palombo
Anibal Aviles portrait, leaves and silhouettes: Mark Romero
Design: j. maya luz and Bernardo Palombo
Thank you to everyone who has permitted me to photograph them. It has meant the world to me to meet and learn about you. There is something so valuable about knowing someone’s name. It seems simplistic, yet it is not. It is a profound feeling to know your neighbors. At a time when so much else seems out of our control, it is one way for us to build the kind of community that brings feelings of belonging and hope. These images celebrate the people within this place - our shared home.
Special thanks to the following for their support in
creating this installation:
Bernardo Palombo - Artist
Atu Ram - Artist
Mark Romero - Artist
Peter Arndtsen, Columbus-Amsterdam BID
Michael Gonzalez, Columbus-Amsterdam BID
Elizabeth Masella, NYC Parks
Matt Genrich, NYC Parks
Materials for the Arts
Roy and Willie, Park-It Management
Anastasia Pratt, Phd
Special thanks to these individuals for sharing
their memories of Anibal Aviles:
This Anibal Aviles Playground Installation is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, a regrant program supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature and administered by LMCC. Additional funding and support came from the Jacob and Ruth Epstein Foundation, El Taller Latino Americano, the Columbus-Amsterdam BID, Materials for the Arts, Manhattan Valley Restoration LDC, Friends of Anibal Aviles Playground