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It was a mystery for a New York minute. On Tuesday the Astor Place Cube went missingand neither the police nor local community leaders nor its creator, the famed sculptor Tony Rosenthal, knew where it was.
The iconic 15-foot-tall, spinnable steel sculpture has stood, poised on one tip, in the traffic island between Cooper Square and Lafayette Street since 1967. "The Alamo," as it is formally called, was the city's first permanent contemporary outdoor sculpture, and it became a meeting place for street kids and the better-heeled alike.
So when it vanished, suspicion of conspiracy percolated. Was it removed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, designers of the new "undulating" glass high-rise of "architectural loft residences" that now towers over the intersection? Or had the city excised it as part of a recent Department of Transportation plan to remap the sometimes grungy Astor Place into a pedestrian mall? Or was it absconded with by pranksters, like the ones who once transformed the Village landmark into giant Rubik's cube?
Nope, turns out the Parks Department had carted off the Cube for emergency repairs. According to Jerry Delakas, the old Greek guy who runs the newsstand across the street, a crew of parks workers arrived around 6 a.m. with a crane and hoisted the 2,500-pound artwork onto a truck.
The sculptor was heartened when he learned what had become of his piece. "I'm very happy that they're taking care of it, because it's been there a long, long time," says Rosenthal, who is now 90 and lives in Southampton.
When he first installed the sculpture as part of a public art exhibition, it was supposed to remain only for six months. But protests by Cooper Union students convinced city officials to keep it there.
Late last year, one of the bolts that supports the base went missing, and the giant Cube had been teetering dangerously on its axis when people tried to make it spin. Then in December, the whole rig got stuck and wouldn't budge.
After much prodding from Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer, who had spent a couple of weeks pestering various city agencies, the Parks Department stepped in to fix the sculpture using emergency funds from the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the traffic island.
Stetzer says she's pleased it's being refurbished, but a bit miffed that Parks didn't notify the community first. "I'm wasting tremendous amounts of time responding to all these people calling me," she complained, noting that neither she nor Community Board 2 nor the local City Council office knew this was coming.
"It was an emergency contract," responds Parks spokesperson Warner Johnston. "Due to the fact that it's such a heavy, tactile sculpture that people are expected to push, and the base was so haphazardthat's why we felt we had to move so quickly."
This isn't the first time the sculpture has needed a mechanical tweak. "It used to have a bearing inside so it would spin very fast," Rosenthal recalls, "but we had to take it out because we were afraid someone would get hurt."
Parks officials say the latest round of care will be completed in a few weeks, and the Cube will be returned. "The city has not forgotten the Alamo," said Commissioner Adrian Benepe, in a prepared statement. "It will be returned to Astor Place better than ever."
Much to the relief, no doubt, of the numerous goths, skate punks, and students who have made the Cube their regular hangout. On Tuesday night, a group of NYU freshmen turned up on Astor Place as part of a weekly scavenger hunt. "We were on a quest for the Cube, and now it's missing," complained 19-year-old Justin Bonilla of Long Island, pawing the icy sidewalk where the sculpture once stood.
"Did it fall on someone or something?" Bonilla asked, speculating on how such a large object could have disappeared. " 'Cause personally it would make my day if it fell on someone," he added, before taking off with his buddies to search out the next "cool" New York thing on their list: drag queens.