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Queens Chronicle

The failure of ‘Civic Virtue’

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Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2012 10:30 am

It’s a shame that “The Triumph of Civic Virtue,” the 1920 statue by famed sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, which has been stationed outside Borough Hall since the 1940s, is being moved out of Queens.

But the fact is we don’t deserve to keep it.

The statue, commonly just called “Civic Virtue,” has not been well maintained. It’s not respected by many residents here; most probably don’t even know what it is. It was controversial even before it arrived at the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike. And its pending move to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, while unfortunate, may provide the impetus for the residents of this borough to be more protective of our treasures.

“Civic Virtue” comprises a male figure wielding a sword and towering over two writhing female figures, sirens of Greek mythology, meant to symbolize vice and corruption. Those who want to keep it where it is understand the symbolism.

But from day one the sculpture has been misinterpreted, both knowingly and not, as sexist. Elizabeth King Black of the National Women’s Party is one who decried it, saying, “Men have their feet on women's necks, and the sooner women realize it the better!” That was no recent comment made by someone ignorant of history; she said it at a hearing in the 1920s.

So while we sympathize with those who know what the sculpture is meant to convey, we also understand the view of those who look at it and just see misogyny.

That, however, is not the main reason people in Queens should throw up their hands and just let “Civic Virtue” go. The main reason is that we let our officials allow it to all but fall apart over the years, and now it’s too late to do anything about it. Those who wanted it preserved should have demanded that funds be allocated for that years ago.

Instead, in typical Queens fashion, no one got it done. Now that the statue is just days away from being moved to Green-Wood — which will pay to restore it with private funds and let those who want to admire it afterward do so —we get a too-little, too-late press conference, led by two City Council members trying to stop the process.

The hearing was held, the decision was made, and all we can say now is that Queens residents should do a better job protecting other borough assets, such as the New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the Bowne House, the Steinway Mansion and so many other endangered landmarks. If we lose another, the fault again will be not in our stars but in ourselves.

Welcome to the discussion.