Mayor de Blasio’s hand-picked statue commission heard a variety of opinions on which historical monuments should stay and which should be removed at its first public meeting in Queens last Friday, with some speakers saying images of people like Christopher Columbus should not stand on public ground while others argued he, and other figures, should not be touched.
“We do not want to emulate the book burners,” said former state Sen. Serphin Maltese of Middle Village. “We do not want to emulate the iconoclasts who have erased a valued part of our past.”
The hearing was the first of five to be held across the city before the mayor’s 18-member panel makes non-binding recommendations on which statues and monuments should be removed from public ground. Five attended the session at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens.
The suggestions are due before the end of the year.
While Maltese was not alone last week in his belief that all statues — such as the one of the Italian explorer in Columbus Circle — should be kept in place, there were some who expressed their desire to see Columbus and others moved to a new location, and perhaps replaced with other figures.
“I think for indigenous people, people of color, especially young folk, it’s problematic because we have to look up and see white men on pedestals but we can’t see any statues that look like us,” Shawnee Rice, a member of the American Indian Community House in lower Manhattan, said at the hearing.
The panel was brought together following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which was met with opposition from neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups.
One rightist killed a counterprotester and injured many more in an alleged terroristic car-ramming attack.
De Blasio in August suggested the Columbus Circle statue — erected in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his expedition — may be removed.
“We have to look at everything here,” the mayor said at the time.
Italian Americans, like Maltese, have vowed to fight any attempt to move monuments dedicated to the sailor, who came to the Americas on behalf of the Spanish crown.
Some have pointed out Columbus was hostile, even murderous, to the Native Americans he found when he got to this hemisphere’s shores.
In September, a vandal sprayed “Take it Down” and “Don’t honor genocide” on a statue of Columbus in Astoria.
“What they do is they glorify a figure who was against all things that the Statue of Liberty represents,” Rick Chavolla, chairman of the American Indian Community House, said of the images of Columbus and others.
Glenn Cantave, founder of the advocacy group Movers and Shakers, called Columbus a “terrorist.”
Those who want the explorer and other historical individuals to stay said today’s values should not be used to judge the people of yesteryear.
“This country made mistakes, obviously,” said Councilman-elect Bob Holden. “Those mistakes are there and we have to consider that ... but let’s not destroy our past to be politically correct now.”
Jeffrey Kroessler, a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he “recoil[s] at the notion of whitewashing history, eliminating what some among us find deeply or superficially offensive.
“History is not pretty,” Kroessler added. “History does not care how you feel.”
Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, argued the panel’s scope is too narrow — among other things, he wants a statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Harlem facing north, not south, and suggested renaming the Tweed Courthouse, where the Department of Education is headquartered.
The building bears the name of William “Boss” Tweed, one of the most corrupt public officials in America’s history.
“Is not the Tweed Courthouse a form of a monument?” asked Morris. “And it’s the headquarters of our public school system?”
One speaker suggested the Central Park statue of William Shakespeare be removed, pointing to the playwright’s depictions of black and Jewish people in “Othello” and “Merchant of Venice,” respectively.
Phil Orenstein, president of the Queens Village Republican Club, argued moving any monuments could be the catalyst to bigger, more significant changes.
“Is the next step to remove their names from our textbooks? To erase their names from our social studies curriculum in our schools and colleges?” asked Orenstein.
Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and chairman of the statue panel, pointed out this is not New York City’s, or Queens’, first argument about public art.
A statue called “The Triumph of Civic Virtue,” which depicts a triumphant sword-wielding Hercules, representing virtue, standing atop two Greek sirens that look like women, representing vice and corruption, stood outside Borough Hall for decades before it was quietly moved over a weekend in December 2012 with no public notification.
The move came following a number of protests from lawmakers and women’s rights groups who called the statue, which now sits in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, sexist.
A plaza dedicated to the women of Queens now stands at the Kew Gardens site. There are some in the borough who say the statue should have never been relocated.
“The idea that there are controversies around public art, or people being worried about public art, is not a new thing,” Finkelpearl said, referring to the Civic Virtue incident. “It’s been going on in New York City for a very long time.”