Statues Have Limitations

NYC announces commission to review public monuments

East News Urbanism
NYC announces commission to review public monuments. (TarHeel4793/Wikimedia Commons)
NYC announces commission to review public monuments. (TarHeel4793/Wikimedia Commons)

Today Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed the members of a hotly-anticipated commission to review the city’s public monuments for “symbols of hate” amid a national climate of elevated bigotry and ascendent white nationalism.

The commission, officially dubbed the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers, will have three months to develop new guidelines for how the city addresses monuments perceived as “oppressive” and “inconsistent” with the city’s values. These values are not strictly codified, but the Mayor’s speechifying on monuments issue over the past month suggests they align with liberal ideals of tolerance, fairness, and equity.

The 18-person commission is co-chaired by Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, and Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. Its members include experts in law, public art, diversity, and preservation, and LGBT issues, as well as two architects: Mabel O. Wilson, a scholar of race and memory and an associate professor of architecture at Columbia GSAPP, and Michael Arad, the designer of the World Trade Center Memorial. Four city agencies—including the Public Design Commission, which reviews and approves public art—are ex officio members of the commission. Additional members may be announced before the first meeting.

In addition to providing general recommendations on city-owned statues, it will review a few hot-button monuments, most likely starting with the J. Marion Sims statue in Harlem near Central Park and Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle. Both works have drawn strong condemnation from anti-racist protestors in recent weeks.

“I’m confident that this process will produce a conversation capable of examining our public art through the accurate, contextual historical lens that it deserves,” said Mayor de Blasio, in a prepared statement.

As the Mayor found out personally a few weeks ago, this is not an easy task. When he announced the commission, de Blasio, who has Italian heritage, said he was not necessarily opposed to removing Columbus. This statement provoked the ire of some Italian-Americans New Yorkers who view Columbus as a national hero.

In light of the hot political climate (it’s an election year, after all), the commission is moving fast to issue recommendations for the city’s public works, as well as draft policies the city could advance to live up to its values. The group will put out its findings by the end of the year, but before then, the public can weigh in on the controversial monuments through DCA’s website (link forthcoming).

Across the country, cities are re-evaluating their approach to public commemoration. In the dead of night last month, Baltimore and New Orleans removed their Confederate statues in light of the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally to save that city’s Confederate monuments. That day, a rally participant drove his car through a group of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing one.

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