Monumental battle rages over monuments

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Statues, portraits, plaques — and even a tomb — face possible eviction. Will it leave a hole in our history or right historical wrongs?


  • The city's statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street along the perimeter of Central Park, has sparked an outcry and calls to take it down because the "father of modern gynecology" was known to have operated on enslaved black women with neither anesthesia nor consent. Photo: Jim Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The city's 76-foot tall monument to explorer Christopher Columbus, which stands atop a granite column in Columbus Circle, has been targeted by anti-colonialist activists who are demanding its removal because of the Genoan's exploitative treatment of the country's indigenous population. Photo: Marcel Rene Kalt, via Wikimedia Commons

  • This statue of Peter Stuyvesant is the target of a Jewish activist group that is demanding its removal from Stuyvesant Square. A Dutch governor of New Amsterdam in the 1650s, Stuyvesant had savaged Catholics and railed against Jews as a “deceitful race,” seeking to bar them from settling in the colony that became New York. Photo: MusikAnimal, via Wikimedia Commons

  • An 1860s-era photo of Horatio Seymour, a governor of New York who ran an ugly white-supremacy campaign against Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868 under the motto, “This is a white man’s country. Let white men rule.” A City Council member is demanding that a portrait of Seymour on prominent display at City Hall be ejected. Photo: Matthew Brady / National Archives & Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

  • An 1868 campaign poster for Horatio Seymour, a governor of New York who ran a vile white-supremacy campaign against Ulysses S. Grant for president with his running mate, Francis Blair. Their slogan: “This is a white man’s country. Let white men rule.” A City Council member is demanding that a portrait of Seymour on prominent display at City Hall be hauled away. Poster: Via Wikimedia Commons

  • An April 27, 1897 photo taken at the dedication of Grant's Tomb in Morningside Heights. It’s unlikely the occupant of the tomb will be evicted any time soon. But President Ulysses S. Grant is now under fire from critics who point to an order he issued as commanding general of the U.S. Army during the Civil War that expelled the Jews from Kentucky. Photo: Circle Century Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The infamous 1940 photo of Marshal Philippe Petain, the French hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I who became the leader of the collaborationist Vichy France government following the German invasion of World War II, shown shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested removing a marker on lower Broadway that commemorates the ticker tape parade that was held in 1931 to honor Petain. Photo: New York Public Library collection

The city is at a crossroads. The face it presents to the outside world could be transformed. The way it views itself may metamorphose into something else. And the very nature of its past could be rewritten.

What’s going on and what is at stake? Mayor Bill de Blasio summed it up when he explained the grand ambitions of City Hall’s latest initiative: “We’re trying to unpack 400 years of American history here,” he said.

Exactly. In those 10 pointed words, he synthesized his administration’s controversial plan to conduct a “90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property.” Supporters were heartened. The backlash was swift.

After President Donald Trump’s equivocating response to the neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville — “many sides” were to blame, he said — advocates demanded a purge of tainted historical figures commemorated in city statues and monuments.

A tear-them-all-down movement quickly developed. There’s no defense for totems of hatred and flashpoints of intolerance, the argument went. Start by pulling down the statue of Christopher Columbus from its 76-foot-tall perch in Columbus Circle, critics said. Then, rename the circle.

“He’s the biggest genocidal murderer the globe has ever seen,” said City Council Member Jumaane Williams. Yes, it’s a bit over the top, but the Brooklyn Democrat’s view that Columbus criminally brutalized and enslaved the indigenous population has immense popular support.

Not so fast, the counter-argument goes. Stalinist, Leninist and Maoist societies purge offending memorials. Democracies should refrain. This isn’t only about booting Confederate statues. It’s about stripping away the past, stamping out knowledge, anesthetizing history to exorcise our demons.

“Don’t reopen historic argument that are over 400 years old!” warned City Council Member Joseph Borelli at a boisterous “keep-Columbus” rally on August 24. “It’s a can of worms,” the Staten Island Republican added. “And deeply decisive.”

To mix metaphors, it’s also a slippery slope: Defending Columbus in a tweet, Queens GOP Council Member Eric Ulrich recalled one of the dark chapters of World War II — the decision of President Franklin Roosevelt to dispatch Japanese-Americans to internment camps.

“When will NYC Democrats call for the renaming of FDR Drive?” he asked.

Don’t expect the fate of the Genoan explorer — now a cause célèbre for the Italian-Americans who want to keep him and a rallying cry for the anti-colonialists who want to evict him — to be resolved anytime soon.

De Blasio announced the panel on August 16, four days after the white nationalist rally in Virginia shook the nation. But he hasn’t named its members yet, though he said on August 28 he would do so “in a matter of days.”

The mayor also seemed cognizant of the firestorm his “symbols-of-hate” agenda had triggered. For the first time, he said on Monday that the disputed monuments wouldn’t necessarily get the heave-ho. Some could receive explanatory plaques adding “perspective” to the flawed historical figures they portray, he said.

It should be noted, however, that blue-ribbon panels historically have provided political cover for mayors embarking on controversial actions, so indeed it could lead to mass evictions or dismantling of statues. Still, that won’t become clear until de Blasio taps the “relevant experts and community leaders” who will develop “concrete guidelines for review and removal.”

Will widespread removals foster community peace and reconciliation and bring closure to century-old injustices? Or will they arbitrarily purge us of our collective past and incinerate our heritage and history in some Orwellian memory hole?

You be the judge. Among the bronze-and-granite items potentially on the chopping block:

• The Peter Stuyvesant statue in Stuyvesant Square. New Amsterdam’s anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic Dutch governor, who served from 1647 to 1664, branded Jews a “deceitful race, repugnant and blasphemous,” and initially banned them from settling in Manhattan.

“New York, of all American cities, which claims such a vibrant Jewish community, should take the lead in denouncing Stuyvesant’s bigotry” and removing his name from public places, said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who head Shurat HaDin—Israel Law Center, a Jewish activist group.

• The statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street opposite the New York Academy of Medicine. Renowned as the “father of modern gynecology,” Sims’ scientific breakthroughs came at the expense of enslaved black women, whom he operated on with neither anesthesia nor consent.

“We must send a definitive message that these despicable acts are repugnant and reprehensible by removing his likeness,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a statue-side demonstration.

• The 9-foot portrait of Horatio Seymour near de Blasio’s City Hall office. The former governor of New York battled Ulysses S. Grant as the Democratic Party nominee in the presidential election of 1868, running on a white-supremacy platform with the slogan, “This is a white man’s country. Let white men rule.”

“It was perhaps the most racist presidential campaign our country has ever seen,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat who is demanding the portrait be hauled away. “We should not be celebrating this man’s legacy.”

• The sarcophagus of General Grant in Grant’s Tomb in Morningside Heights. While the remains are probably safe, the tomb’s occupant has taken flak from historians who cite General Order 11, which he issued in 1862 as commander of the Union Army in the Civil War to expel Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Mark-Viverito said the tomb should be on the review list. Asked about Grant’s fate, de Blasio said he wasn’t familiar with the quickly rescinded order, which was directed at illicit wartime cotton trading in the South.

• The granite markers honoring Marshal Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval on lower Broadway. Petain was the French hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I, and Laval was a premier of France, and both men received ticker-tape parades up the Canyon of Heroes in 1931. Few Frenchmen were to dishonor themselves more.

Each collaborated with the Nazis in Vichy-run France, and Petain was photographed shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in a notorious 1940 picture. Both were found guilty as traitors to France, and sentenced to death for treason. Laval was executed by firing squad, while Petain’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.

De Blasio said the two markers would be among the first “symbols of hate” the city would remove.

Now, it’s your turn: The city may purge some statues and monuments. Will it be appropriately redressing ancient grievances and injustices? Or will it be needlessly sanitizing its past and obliterating the images of its colorful characters? Write Douglas Feiden — — and we’ll publish some of your letters.

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