NEW YORK — For years, the students of New York City's Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School have unknowingly walked by the home of an American icon — artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell. But this will no longer be this case.
On Thursday morning — after months of the teens petitioning, presenting at city council and neighborhood board meetings and educating members of the community — democracy in action prevailed as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill to co-name the corner of West 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue "Norman Rockwell Place."
The signing followed a New York City Council vote of approval two weeks prior.
A total of 42 requests to co-name city thoroughfares were approved at the hand of de Blasio during a standing-room-only ceremony at 31 Chambers St., the New York County Surrogate Courthouse.
Among the people, movements and events so honored were police officers and firefighters who passed away in the line of duty, and former New York Knick Anthony Mason; Hip Hop Boulevard, Diversity Plaza and 1783 Evacuation Day Plaza were also established.
"We are elated to witness the signing," wrote West Side High School teacher René Mills in a text message to The Eagle during the ceremony. "Today we have officially reclaimed Norman!!!"
Commonly associated with his New England roots and bucolic portrayals of the region, Rockwell was born on Feb. 3, 1894, and raised a few blocks from Central Park West.
"Who would have thought that the artist most identified for his portrayals of life in small town America has roots right here in the Upper West Side of Manhattan," said New York City Council member Mark Levine, chairman of the Committee on Parks, who helped pass the street co-naming bill.
"No doubt his experiences in the Upper West Side helped inspire him to produce powerful works depicting everything from the civil rights movement to FDR's Four Freedoms," he said. "I'm grateful to the students at West Side High School, their teacher, René Mills, and the support of the Norman Rockwell Museum for bringing Rockwell's connection to this neighborhood to the attention of the world."
West Side High School is an alternative school, located about a block and a half away from the brownstone residence where Rockwell grew up — 206 West 103rd St., now a building marked 210. Mills is currently working with the association president of that building to install a commemorative plaque there.
Rockwell's work, which represents the struggles and triumphs of all kinds of people, the full melting pot of the human race, so resonated with teacher Mills and her students that in September 2014 they created a campaign to co-name his birth street after him. On Election Day that year, they canvassed voters at their school, a polling location, and picked up 300 signatures in support of the idea.
The Norman Rockwell Museum, located in Stockbridge, Mass., has actively supported the students' efforts. Museum Curator of Education Tom Daly has corresponded with and visited Mills' class to teach them about Norman Rockwell. Last May, the school group took a trip to Stockbridge to explore the museum and educate themselves further on the life and legacy of the man they've championed.
Both Daly and Museum Deputy Director/Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett spoke at Thursday's ceremony, also attended by the Director of Advancement Michelle Clarkin and Media Specialist Jeremy Clowe; Norman Rockwell's granddaughter, Daisy Rockwell, and her daughter, Serafina.
"We are proud of the dedication and vision of the Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School students who worked diligently with our museum to see Norman Rockwell recognized in his hometown," said Norman Rockwell Museum Director/CEO, Laurie Norton Moffatt in a prepared statement.
"Rockwell hoped to inspire mutual respect and understanding through his pictures, and encourage change and community involvement," she said. "These students have demonstrated outstanding civic participation through their efforts, and we are so pleased to see Rockwell's artistic legacy recognized on the street where he was born."
A June 9 street co-naming ceremony is planned, during which the new "Norman Rockwell Place" sign will be installed.
In recognition of the students' efforts, the Norman Rockwell Museum worked with Annika Many of edBridge Partners, an education consulting agency, to present each student with a family membership to Norman Rockwell Museum, which offers reciprocal privileges to more than 650 museums throughout North America.
"The kids felt really proud to be a part of changing New York City history," said Mills. "They were wonderful and just glowing with pride."
Norman Rockwell Museum staff said they hope to continue its partnership with Mills and her students through setting up a teen advisory group for a 75th anniversary traveling exhibition on Rockwell's famous panels known as "The Four Freedoms," set to open in New York City in 2018. Currently, students in New York's Capital Region are readying works that reinterpret The Four Freedoms for an exhibition that will be on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum from March 9 through April 9.
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.