Students' hard work renames New York intersection Norman Rockwell Place

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Photo Gallery | PHOTOS: Unveiling of Norman Rockwell Place in New York City

NEW YORK >> After three years, more than 300 signatures, several New York City Council meetings and a lot of patience, passion and perseverance, an upper West Side alternative high school has made the street naming of Norman Rockwell Place living history.

The combined effort of the school, the city and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, came full circle under clear, blue sunny skies on Thursday afternoon.

More than 150 students, teachers, and museum and community members turned out to celebrate the official unveiling of a new street sign, located at the intersection of West 103rd Street and Broadway, just around the corner where the iconic artist was born and raised until age 9. Rockwell remained a New Yorker into his adolescence and "never really lost his New York accent," said Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator for the Rockwell Museum.

"Rockwell said he spent his time in New York City formulating his ability to tell stories," Plunkett said.

"What was so magical about this is how the students became so animated by the idea and how a teacher so visionary was able to connect art to education. The project just clicked," said Laurie Norton Moffatt. The museum's director and CEO attended the event with Alethea Rockwell, the artist's great-granddaughter, who thanked the students and teachers for honoring her great-grandfather's legacy.

"They're so inspiring," Norton Moffatt said. "These young people have every right to be so proud."

The story of teacher René Mills and her students is the kind Rockwell would have liked to depict. It started three years ago when Mills, during a family visit, was struck by the artist's portrayals of civil rights and social justice through the actions and life moments of both everyday people and U.S. and world leaders.

She then reached out to Tom Daly, the museum's curator of education, to ask about bringing her students to visit. That happened in 2014. "When we understood where they were from and where their high school was located, we thought, hmm, that's kind of interesting, because Rockwell was born on West 103rd," Daly said.

Since 1981, the Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School has been located on the campus of the former P.S. 179, at 140 West 102nd St. Its current mission is to help students — typically between the ages of 17 and 21, who have been unsuccessful in traditional high school settings — develop into "economically self-sufficient, socially conscious, critically thinking citizens."

When Mills brought her students to the museum, few had ever left the city, let alone heard of the Berkshires. But like Mills, her students also took to Rockwell's paintings and their stories. By the end of the museum tour, Daly noticed that students were having side conversations. He asked what was on their minds.

The students told Daly they went to school right around the corner from Rockwell's birthplace and couldn't comprehend why there was nothing in the neighborhood to show it. Mills said the students couldn't stop pondering this, long after they returned to the West Side. So, she turned it into more than a teaching moment, ushering the young people and their momentum into a movement.

"She really wanted to give these kids an experience in government and action," Daly said.

In September 2014, a small group of students in Mills' after-school class began designing and printing campaign materials, from fliers to T-shirts, to help promote their plan to name a street corner "Norman Rockwell Place."

The process to make this a reality first required them to gather a minimum of 150 signatures needed to validate their petition for the street co-naming. Then it had to be approved by the Transportation Committee of District 7, which had the power to pass a resolution of recommendation on to the full District 7 council.

After that, the proposal would have to be approved by the full New York City Council and garner the signature of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Nineteen-year-old Beatriz Kevelier and 20-year-old Azemina Cecunjanin both spent two years on the project, coming back to support even after they had graduated from Reynolds.

"When we were first getting signatures for our petition I remember one lady asking, "Why are you doing this? It's never going to happen?" There wasn't always a lot of support," said Kevelier.

But, Cecunjanin said, "There's no greater encouragement than underestimation."

Mills and her fellow teachers and Reynolds Principal Jean McTavish continued to give the young adults the latitude to pursue the project, while Daly and Plunkett and the Norman Rockwell Museum continued to provide the resources that helped arm the students with the facts and history that validated Norman Rockwell as a New Yorker and American icon worthy of such an honor.

That made all the difference for Roberta Schlaifer Semer and her fellow members of the Manhattan Community Board 7 Transportation Committee. She recalls the night the students made their pitch.

"They were so well organized. It was awesome," she said. "They each had something to say and they showed us pictures of Norman Rockwell's art and talked about what it meant to them. They did a remarkable presentation so we approved the resolution."

Semer had her own personal connection to Norman Rockwell. Her father worked in films and advertising for 20th Century Fox and personally hired the young artist to do the promotional poster for the 1943 drama, "Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette."

"With Rockwell, it's like six degrees of separation for people," Semer said.

In early February, the New York City Council unanimously approved the proposal. On Feb. 25, during a standing-room-only ceremony at the New York County Surrogate Courthouse, Mayor de Blasio approved Norman Rockwell Place as well as the co-naming of 41 other landmark designations, including Hip Hop Boulevard, Diversity Plaza and streets named after city veterans, police and firefighters who had passed away.

The street co-naming project closed the gap between members of today's generation and Rockwell's still evergreen legacy. Some new students who came to Reynolds would get involved with the project, while alumni kept in touch with it. The Norman Rockwell Museum staff continued to visit the students in New York, and Mills, fellow staff and students traveled to Stockbridge to visit the museum again in 2015 and again back in May.

Thursday afternoon's Norman Rockwell Place unveiling included the debut of the new Reynolds West Side High Blue Devils Drum Corps, outfitted in T-shirts bearing a black-and-white line drawing depiction of Rockwell, inspired by a painting by Kacey Schwartz. The 10-member group, conducted by music teacher Albert Bouchard, led a percussion parade down a couple of blocks, from the school to the corner of West 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Bouchard said that, with the incentive of a little extra credit, the band hustled to prepare for the occasion. "Only three of the students have ever played drums. They've been practicing for six weeks," he said.

Passersby whipped out smartphone cameras to capture the moments, which included Mills using a megaphone to lead a rhythmic chant of Rockwell's name.

Longtime neighborhood resident Ronald Clindinin said the project was "very cool" to see. "The Upper West Side is full of so much history. But so much of our history gets lost if we don't share it with the next generation," he said. "Who knew there was an icon like Norman Rockwell who grew up right here in this neighborhood."

District 7 City Councilor Mark Levine was on hand to help with the unveiling and deliver a city proclamation honoring the Reynolds students' efforts, a capstone to their own legacies.

"We're so proud of the students and the school, and so glad to now have a connection with the museum," he said.

Mills lauded the museum for being "all the way up in Massachusetts and caring about us here at Reynolds West Side High."

Museum curator of education Tom Daly, like everyone else involved, said this will be a project that will be remembered for a lifetime.

"I look forward to what they're going to do going forward in their lives. A lot of these kids have changed the trajectory in their lives since working on this," Daly said. "When they go through this neighborhood they'll be able to see this sign and say, here's the story. They've made a mark on the world. How many of us can hope to do that? These kids already have."


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