Public School 69X Journey Prep is a 93-year-old school building in the Bronx, near Soundview, with a student body of about 600, most of them Hispanic. It suffers from many of the typical problems of urban schools – budgets in perpetual crisis, a high turnover of teachers. But it has a secret treasure too, down in the boiler room.
That treasure is handyman Israel Reyes.
Reyes, 57, has worked at PS69X for most of his adult life. For years, the school was a drab, brown space, even its high ceilings not alleviating the beige gloom.
“There were no colors — it was like walking into a prison,” said Reyes. He remembers just seeing the building itself depress students each morning.
He began with leftover paint. He painted mosaic patterns on columns and sunlight on the underside of staircases. Piping that clustered along ceilings became a many-colored tangle. Electrical boxes became illustrated animal habitats.
For years, working before and after school on his personal time, Reyes painted classroom doors into cave mouths and big blank walls into murals. Students would come in each morning and search for the newest details. And he was thrilled to show them.
Reyes didn’t confine himself to paint. Found-object sculptures of space ships hang from the ceiling, many of them depicting real craft. The Hubble Telescope is up there, made from a coffee can. The International Space Station is made from the spools out of rolls of plastic wrap. Its solar panels are burnt-out parts from his boiler. A panorama of Manhattan is in the school library – he made it out of table and chair legs.
Tucked among his murals are educational snippets about animals. Younger students like to go on safari to hunt for painted endangered animals, and he has toy binoculars if they ask him.
The school is proud of him. They buy him paint now, and nearby schools have contracted him to spread his art there.