NORTH ADAMS — A large mural paying homage to the city’s history will be painted on the North Adams Housing Authority complex.
The mural’s central figure: Lue Gim Gong, a horticulturist and Chinese immigrant who came to North Adams in the late 1800s to work in a shoe factory. He later lived in Florida, where he developed a frost-tolerant orange.
“It is said he saved the industry millions of dollars by his perfection of an orange tree on which fruit would remain until far beyond maturity,” a New York Times article about his death in 1925 reads. He also won a medal from the U.S. government for his work with oranges.
“In general, I don’t think a lot of people realize he was a member of the North Adams community in the way he was,” said Ben Lamb, a city councilor and program director of the NAMAzing Ashland Street Initiative, the group that helped organize the project. “He represents, in a way, a really important era of North Adams history that is not really significantly represented on another public display throughout the city.”
The mural is part of a larger project to improve the Ashland Street corridor funded through a grant from MassDevelopment and a crowdfunding campaign, Lamb said. The project also brought wooden benches, bike racks and several smaller murals to the corridor.
The large mural is the last part of the project.
“This is the final piece, the cornerstone,” Lamb said.
Renowned artist Gaia will be painting the mural this month. Gaia, whose given name is Andrew Pisacane, lives in Baltimore and paints murals all over the world. He has a bachelor’s idegree n fine arts from Maryland Institute College of Art, and his work has been shown at The Baltimore Museum of Art, Rice Gallery in Houston and the Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive in Spoleto, Italy.
“We ended up being able to tap into one of the most fantastic artists I’ve seen, in terms of mural work,” Lamb said. “We wanted this to be something that was there for a significant amount of time, ideally. We wanted it to really bring a high-quality aesthetic.”
It will cover most of an entire side of the building, Lamb said.
“NAHA is extremely honored to be selected to host this large scale mural at the Ashland Street corridor and has been anxiously awaiting the transformation of the North side of its high-rise building since receiving this news,” Jennifer Hohn, executive director of the North Adams Housing Authority, said in a statement.
About 250 residents responded to a survey giving input on the project and its themes, Lamb said.
“Lue Gim Gong came up multiple times in the surveys,” Lamb said, adding that the city’s industrial history also came up frequently.
Gaia used the surveys to make his design.
“The design is Lue Gim Gong looking in one direction and a child running in the opposite direction,” Gaia said. “In the middle where they intersect within these geometric shapes that are created, you have images of child laborers and women working in the Sprague [Electric Co.]”
And, of course, there will be oranges.
Gaia hopes to finish the mural by June 18.
There also will be a sign added with information about the mural and the history it features.
“There are so many historical components represented in the image,” Lamb said. “We wanted to have an educational piece.”
Lue came to the U.S. from China when he was young, first to California and later to North Adams, where he and other Chinese immigrants worked at Calvin Sampson’s shoe factory and broke a strike. He met Fannie Burlingame and lived with her family, and became a U.S. citizen, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He ended up on Burlingame’s land in DeLand, Fla., where “he tended to her orange groves. He had learned orange growing from his parents in China,” local historian Paul Marino said.
There, Lue worked on horticulture, and after frosts decimated citrus groves in 1894 and 1895, he successfully cross-pollinated two types of oranges to create a cold-resistant one, according to the USDA.
“Lue’s conviction to do lasting good changed the Florida citrus industry and broadened the seasonal range for many orchard-grown trees,” the USDA wrote on its website about Lue.
Marino long has felt that Lue should be recognized in the city.
“I would have liked to see a street named after him or some kind of a memorial erected somewhere. We do not do enough for our local history here,” he said.