Sunday, May 26, 2024

The “Crosswinds” mural was painted on The Middle East’s Brookline Street wall by Daniel Galvez in 1992. (Photo: Jeffrey Dunn)

The plan to put up a six-story hotel, restaurant and nightclub honoring and remaking The Middle East in Central Square continues to be complicated by a single wall – the one facing Brookline Street that bears the iconic “Crosswinds” mural painted by Daniel Galvez in 1992.

Once plans to demolish the nightclub move forward, the public art piece would be destroyed with it, erasing vibrant portraits of locals, some of whom have died in the decades since. 

They make “Crosswinds” not just decorative, but a key to “understand this place at a certain point in time,” said Deborah Wise, a founder of the nearby Central Square Theater, at a Feb. 15 public meeting at the ZuZu restaurant. If that disappears, so does that historic connection, Wise said.

Cambridge mural artist David Fichter – Wise’s husband – has proposed hiring Gálvez to repaint the piece, which he argues is the cheapest and most efficient way to preserve it, and the idea has broad support online and at public meetings. Galvez last repainted the mural in 2017.

“Can you commit tonight to preserving that mural and bringing him back to repaint it?” Fichter asked developer Patrick Barrett at the meeting. “This is very simple. It would be an original piece of art and we’d bring him back to paint it. Why is that so difficult?”

Barrett promised to continue talks with Gálvez, but said that the artist’s requested fee of $150,000 is “egregious. I don’t have $150,000.” 

Without understanding the full scope and complexity of the repainting proposal, Barrett said, “I have nothing to commit to.”

More music to come

Barrett and the Sater brothers, of the family that has been operating the Middle East venues since 1969, shared their plans – now including several music stages, bars and restaurants that include Zuzu and Sonia – to a skeptical but optimistic audience of around 30. 

“I know you guys look at me as a developer, but I’m also part of the community,” Barrett said at the meeting. “In my mind, Central Square isn’t Central Square without The Middle East.” 

Co-owner Nabil Sater said he trusts Barrett to continue The Middle East’s legacy: “I’ve known him since he was 16 years old. I worked with him in the Central Square Business Association for at least 12 years. This guy’s amazing.”

Rocky path to preservation

The Saters got better financial offers than Barrett’s, but decided to work with Barrett in part to preserve the building as a cultural institution. “We’re honored to work with Patrick, because you’ve really given us what we want to keep The Middle East going for the next 100 years. I’m humbled to offer this place to the community,” Nabil Sater said.

Barrett shared details of the proposed project, including a mock-up design of the building that some residents complained looked cold and industrial compared with the current venue.

Formerly Cambridge-based musician Ben Simon, who said he was displaced by rising rents, noted that developments such as this contribute to an affordable-housing crisis. “That’s not to say that this proposal isn’t a hell of a lot better than a lot of things that could be going on. But for people in my income bracket, this is part of the process of me being removed from the city.”

Others applauded the plan’s practicality, including Central Square resident Jeff Bellman. “People talk a lot about keeping the old magic here,” Bellman said. “But the only way that can happen is if this is an economically viable project. Patrick and his team have figured out a practical way to do that, and I’m very supportive of it.”

“Crosswinds” conversation online

A conversation started by Fichter on the social media platform Nextdoor also drew some mixed reactors to the mural preservation plan, including Paul Coradeschi’s statement that “I’d tear that thing down in a heartbeat. Looks awful” and Robert Winters’ comment that the community should “leave that decision to the people who arranged to have it there in the first place – the Sater family.” 

Most support keeping the mural. Commenter James St. Clair, a kindergarten teacher in Cambridge for 29 years, said he recognized his former student Luis in the piece. Luis passed away in fifth grade from leukemia. Luis was “a wonderful and kind kid who was taken away too early. I’m not the only one who says hello and remembers Luis each time we go up Brookline Street,” St. Clair said.

Many other subjects from the mural are recognizable to current residents too. “I would argue,” he said, ”that after 30 years it is historical and should be re-created.”

When contacted for comment, Gálvez said Thursday that he is still in talks with Barrett and the Sater brothers and that the proposal’s future is uncertain. Gálvez is happy about the support for his work.

“I feel the love from the community about the mural,” he said, “and it warms my heart.”

The community meeting was the third held by Barrett’s JB Realty to get feedback on the proposal. The fourth and final meeting will be held 5 p.m. March 8 at ZuZu, 474 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.