Interview with Shorewalkers’ Hike Leader Brigitte Stark-Merklein (by Christine Yost, June 2021)

“An intriguing and surprising tour,” I found myself thinking as I continued along with Shorewalkers’ hike leader Brigitte Stark-Merklein on her recent “Murals of Spanish Harlem” walk. At the start, Brigitte provided an overview of the streets and pace of the walk, which would conclude with an option to stroll through Central Park’s northeast section to see the season’s blossoms. It would total approximately 8 miles using a rig-zagging route that Brigitte had scouted and well researched beforehand. Yes, the day provided great exercise and conversation with others in the group and, best of all, Brigitte’s fascinating narrative at each stop opened our eyes to much along the way: the many murals, both large and small, as well as new and old — and then there was so much more! The walk also offered a glimpse into the area’s history, shops, people and neighborhoods.

One enormous mural, The Spirit of East Harlem, featured the heart of the neighborhood itself, including many figures as well as a group of four playing dominoes. Another, almost Matisse-like in form and color, featured elements from all over the world (e.g., the Egyptian eye) as well as a sundial, “hiding in plain sight” among the murals’ many forms. Some murals played homage to cultural icons, others to former neighborhood residents, may they RIP, rest in peace. The most recent mural, an especially striking black and white op-art work, was one I don’t believe I would have ever found on my own, that is, without Brigitte’s advance scouting; it was tucked away in the back of a parking lot. Designed just last year by a 105 year old, Carmen Herrera (now 106), painted by students of a nearby school, it sparkled with precise optical qualities.

We started on the Upper East Side and heard about the history of the neighborhoods as we began to stroll through what was once (as recently as the 1980’s) a large German enclave. We took time to read the Black Lives Matter posters near the gardens and park surrounding Gracie Mansion, along with homage to the Jack Finley walk sign (Jack Finley, an avid walker, seems a likely possible “ancestor” to Shorewalkers). We searched for and discovered a few dozen tiny sculptures of heads, carved out of apples and then bronzed, the small wizened heads were welded to the fence, and served as guardians of the Carl Schurz gardens.

We continued north on what could be called “a Voyage to Cuba”. Sidebar conversations filled us in about the long established Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the lower east side. As we strolled from one mural to the next, we took in the sights: the shops, sidewalks, the locals, and restaurants along the way.

Brigitte’s interests in a wide array of topics are reflected in her walks. Selecting areas that she is interested in but not familiar with, Brigitte scouts out a route to highlight art, history, architecture and more. Born abroad, and now retired from a career that had her living in many countries, Brigitte especially enjoys NYC’s rich international flavor and neighborhoods. Through friends she heard about Shorewalkers, and signed up for the Great Saunter. Subsequently, enjoying being outdoors, Brigitte became a member during COVID times, a time of social distancing when time spent indoors had become the norm. Taking several Shorewalker walks she noted the skills needed to lead a successful hike. Recently deciding to become a hike leader herself; Brigitte found enjoyment in designing her walks for Shorewalkers. In a well-planned route, Brigitte led the group to sights and wonders at a pace that allowed for photographs and discussion, and, at the same time, kept us walking at a good pace. Already a volunteer for the Central Park Conservancy, Brigitte is comfortable with including Central Park in her walks. Brigitte finds volunteering to be a hike leader is a great way to enjoy “giving back” and “sharing with others”.

Dare I conclude this interview by thanking Brigitte and noting that the vegan cake Brigitte shared with the group near the end of the “Murals of Spanish Harlem” walk was delicious? Please check the Shorewalker Meetup listing for future walks led by Brigitte as well as others. If you are interested in becoming a walk leader we welcome you to see the Shorewalker website for contact information.

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