National News

No Traveling for New York’s Columbus Statue, Mayor Decides

Posted January 12, 2018 10:10 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2018 10:12 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Back in the heat of summer, when the nation’s attention was on rioting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that New York City would conduct a review of all “symbols of hate” in its parks and on its streets, to see which ones should be removed or otherwise confronted.

But in the absence of actual statues dedicated to Confederate leaders, de Blasio trained his sights on the city’s unique monumental inventory, which includes statues of Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, and plaques to the likes of Philippe Pétain, the French World War I hero turned Nazi collaborator.

The mayor empaneled a special commission, which, after months of closed-door meetings, public hearings and an online survey that drew some 3,000 responses, recommended that the city relocate just one piece of statuary: a monument to J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century doctor who developed advances in gynecological surgery by conducting operations on black slave women.

De Blasio on Friday accepted the recommendations, which called for the Sims statue to be removed from Central Park and installed at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he is buried.

But if Sims was a relatively easy target, Columbus was something else. Towering over the traffic circle that bears his name, diagonally across Central Park from the Sims likeness, the city’s main Columbus statue was fiercely defended by Italian-Americans — most notably Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who said that as long as he was in office, a statue of Columbus would stand “tall and proud in the City of New York.”

From the outset, it was clear de Blasio had stepped into politically treacherous terrain. Some saw the mayor’s stance as a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate historical figures in a broader context; others warned of pitting history against culture, and allowing current standards of political correctness to be the arbiter.

De Blasio said in a written announcement Friday that he would keep the Columbus Circle statue where it is, while placing “new historical markers in or around Columbus Circle explaining the history of Columbus and of the monument itself.”

He said that the city would also commission a new monument “recognizing indigenous peoples,” but he did not say where it would be located.

And while de Blasio’s announcement made his directives sound like faits accomplis, under city law they are only recommendations that must be developed into formal proposals that will be considered by the Public Design Commission, a panel tasked with making determinations about public monuments and artwork. The mayor appoints a majority of the design commission’s members.

“I think Columbus did some things that were deeply troubling,” de Blasio said Friday in an interview on WNYC radio. “But Columbus long ago, a century or more ago, became wrapped up in the larger history of Italian-American people.”

He said that connection could not be “unwrapped,” adding that New York has “one of the biggest Italian-American populations in the whole country. And I think that has to be respected and honored too.” De Blasio is of Italian and German descent.

He said that comparisons of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue was the focus of the riot in Charlottesville, to Columbus, whose voyages triggered an era of colonialism that led to the brutal exploitation of Native Americans and the destruction of their cultures, were “apples and oranges.”

De Blasio did not make himself available to reporters Friday and later in the day he left for a trip to Boston and Maine.

Richard Alba, a commission member, said the Columbus statue was an “acid test” for the panel because “you had directly opposing meanings brought to the statue by different groups of people.” The commission also recommended that the statue remain but that explanatory material be added.

“I think that, as well as it can be done, that the commission threaded the needle on what was a very fraught question,” said Alba, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The commission’s report said that there were dissenting opinions on the panel.

De Blasio announced the “symbols of hate” commission in August in a Twitter post. At the same time he said on Twitter that “the commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove.”

Many weeks later, de Blasio said that a staffer had written the tweet and that it did not reflect his own views about the Pétain plaque. This week de Blasio said that he was wrong not to immediately correct the tweet.

On Friday, de Blasio said that the Pétain plaque would remain in place. It is one of dozens of markers commemorating ticker-tape parades held on Lower Broadway, and de Blasio said that the city would “explore opportunities to add context” to the markers.

The mayor also said the city will commit up to $10 million to create new works of public art “honoring various communities that are underrepresented on city property.”

Rick Chavolla, the board chairman of the American Indian Community House in Manhattan, who had called for the Columbus statue’s removal, said that it was wrong to cast the dispute as one pitting Native Americans against Italian-Americans. “It’s between what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong,” he said. “Columbus is just morally wrong. He sold underage girls into sexual slavery. He forced people into labor until they died.”

He called the mayor’s proposal unimaginative. “He’s saying they’re going to put up a plaque. Really? There’s plaques all over the city and they don’t draw any attention.”