Text and Photographs by Jeff French Segall
The Nivola Horses, named for Constantino Nivola, the Italian artist who created them to enliven a public plaza between two New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings on the Upper West Side, have been through a lot.
The 18 concrete, modernist horse sculptures – made for the Stephen Wise Towers that opened in 1964 on West 90th and 91st streets between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues – had their muzzles lopped off by vandals within a decade of being installed.
There they sat for decades more – mute, disfigured, unrepaired – until the next indignity. In the spring of 2021, after a water main break in the plaza, they were cut off at the legs and removed completely, for fear they would be damaged further.
A construction crew carried out the removal with no public notice, leaving only the stumps of the horses’ legs on the plaza. That sight caused public outcry, or at least some protests from art historians and an Italian museum devoted to Nivola’s work. NYCHA quickly promised the horses would be restored and put back in place before the end of the year.
The rescue took longer than promised, though, and it wasn’t carried out by NYCHA.
In 2020, a year before the horses were removed, NYCHA had transferred ownership of Wise Towers to a new entity, PACT-Renaissance Collaborative. One of the collaborative’s principals was Amy Stokes, who has a background in art history and had previously worked for NYCHA.
In her quest to restore the horses, Stokes traveled to Europe to confer with experts at the Museo Nivola in Orani, Italy. And she sought input from Carl Stein, son of the landscape architect who had worked with Nivola.
Stokes also reached out to stone restorer Mary Jablonski, who had done work on the U.S. Capitol building and who brought a team of three to rescue the horses. The work was tedious, requiring much research, experimentation and testing, but the product of their labors is visible for all to see and admire upon strolling through the new Wise Towers Plaza.
While the reconstruction of the concrete horses was an undoubted victory, the plaza space within the Upper West Side NYCHA complex remains a complicated one for those who live within it. Besides the horse sculpture restoration, the complex has a recently refurbished playground and a basketball court. Progress, right?
Yes, but at a price, according to Ernesto Carrera, the popular and widely respected president of the Wise Towers Tenants Association and community leader. Carrera has worked with management and with City Councilmember Gale Brewer’s office to help create a plan for revitalizing the buildings’ indoor and outdoor spaces for play and relaxation. That plan is supposed to improve things for Wise Tower residents. But too often, Carrera told me, he sees non-residents bringing their children to play on the newly-installed equipment – and moving away from the children who live in the Wise towers. Why? Carrera contends it’s because of the apparent differences in their socioeconomic status.
“Before the reconstruction, the jungle gyms, the swings were not there and no one used the plaza except the Wise residents,” Carrera said. “But now, these [non-residents] come here and act like they own the place, and our own people think they’re neither respected nor wanted, and so, they don’t come any more, and that makes me so angry.”
Carrera continued in visible distress. “What are those parents teaching their children when they pull them away to go to a different seat in the plaza? That’s not how to teach your kids, is it?” he asked me, imploringly. “It could be so much better if people could just get together.”
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