Artist Of Small-Town America, Recognized By Native NYC

Feb 26, 2016

Although he is best known for his depictions of small-town America, Norman Rockwell was raised in New York City. Now the artist’s name will adorn a street sign in the metropolis. A renaming ceremony was officiated by Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday at City Hall.

“This is one for a great American,” de Blasio announced. “Norman Rockwell Place.”

The corner of West 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue is now officially named Norman Rockwell Place where the artist was born in 1894, as described by Stephanie Plunkett of the Normal Rockwell Museum.

“206  103rd Street…he was born in a boarding house there and lived in New York City throughout his youth,” said Plunkett.

The ceremony caps a roughly two-year effort by students at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School, just around the corner from Rockwell’s birthplace. Rene Mills is their teacher.

“We had this inspiration about Norman Rockwell,” Mills said. “Especially the Four Freedoms and the civil rights pictures that he painted.”

The students researched Rockwell’s life before visiting the museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he made his home for the last 25 years of his life. For Election Day 2014, the students created petitions and flyers in support of renaming the corner and got 300 signatures from people coming to their school, which is a polling place.

“[They] went there and got the voters who were coming to our school who knew nothing about our school,” Mills said. “You know how hard it is for kids approaching adults, but they got out there. 8:30 to 4:30 getting signatures from people. It is a lesson in civics.”

The petition made its way to the New York City Council, which approved the name change earlier this month. Mark Levine chairs the council’s parks committee and helped move the bill along.

“I heard audible gasp in the audience when you [de Blasio] announced Norman Rockwell,” Levine said. “I don’t think most people realize that he’s from New York City. I didn’t realize it. He’s actually from the Upper West Side. I wouldn’t have known that if it hadn’t been for an incredible group of students at West Side High School.”

In May 2015 the students returned to Stockbridge to learn even more about Rockwell’s work. Kaitlin Santiago thanked her fellow classmates and the political leaders who made the street sign possible.

“We worked very hard,” Santiago said. “We worked night and day and slaved for this street sign and we finally got our reward.”

Stephanie Plunkett, the museum’s chief curator, says Rockwell was a consummate New Yorker, complete with his everlasting upper Manhattan accent, despite his love for rural America.

“He kept studios in both Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Plunkett said. “At the age of 17, Rockwell rented his first space in an attic brownstone on West 48th Street. He then moved on to a space under the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side, which he shared with five young artists. All of the five were evicted for sweeping trash down the hall in front of a more famous artist’s studio. He was quite a prankster.”

Mills says her students are elated about seeing the Norman Rockwell Place sign.

“Because he was a man that made America think through visual art,” said Mills.