More than 50 people testified earlier today in front of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, which held a public hearing in Manhattan, the third of five planned hearings, one in each borough. (Hearings in the Bronx and Staten Island are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday of next week.) Formed in September, in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the advisory commission has until the end of this year to advise the mayor on what to do (if anything) about a handful of contentious statues and monuments in New York City.
As everyone filed into the auditorium in Lower Manhattan this morning, people handed out copies of this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, which features an in-depth article by J.C. Hallman arguing for the removal of a Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who experimented extensively on enslaved black women without using anesthesia. Though some consider Sims to be the “father of modern gynecology,” Hallman argues that he didn’t actually discover anything worthwhile through his inhumane experiments.
Across the board, the Sims statue seemed to be the most hated at the hearing; not one single person testified in favor of keeping it. In her testimony, Genevra DiLorenzo noted that she’d worked in obstetrics for over a decade and never even heard of Sims, and at least two people compared Sims to Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. Toward the end of the four-hour-long hearing, one woman, who had defended other contested statues, concluded: “Let the statues stand … except for Sims.” This was greeted by a roar of laughter.
Apart from the Sims monument, there were two other statues in particular that people brought up over and over: the much-hated equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History and the Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Circle. Also mentioned a few times were a couple of plaques along Broadway commemorating a parade route in 1931 for WWI hero Philippe Pétain and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval — nine years before the two became prominent leaders in Vichy France. (In August, Mayor de Blasio tweeted that Pétain would be “one of the first we remove.”)
While no one stood up to defend Sims, Pétain, Laval, or even Roosevelt, dozens of people were up in arms about Columbus, with representatives of a number of local Italian-American groups — including the Italian American Museum and the Italian American Institute at Queens College — arguing that to remove Columbus would be disrespectful to New York’s Italian-American community. The statue, built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1892, was funded by local Italian Americans, who, as several people testified, hoped to use it to prove their devotion to the US to those who, at the time, saw Italians as an inferior race. In their testimony, several people referenced a discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of Italian-American professors against the City University of New York in 2010 as evidence of continued discrimination against Italian Americans in New York.
Almost every time a speaker introduced herself or himself as an Italian American, it was a preamble to their defense of the Columbus statue. However, a couple of self-identified Italian Americans called for its removal, arguing that Columbus is a terrible role model for their community. Still others pointed out that Italy didn’t even exist until the 19th century, and Columbus himself was likely Catalan. Representatives from the Taino tribe, those most directly affected by Columbus, as well as members of Decolonize This Place, argued that Columbus was merely a colonizer and a white supremacist. One person asked how the pride of one community could possibly be allowed to override the genocide of another. Columbus is just the tip of the iceberg, many people argued, and the problem goes much deeper.
Patrick Waldo, a local tour guide, argued that taking down statues does not remove history, but rather that it removes commemoration. A few minutes later, another speaker stated that people have been merely “honoring the myth” of Columbus, a myth that mixes fiction and historical fact. Several people noted that removing these offensive statues should only be the first step.
Toward the very end of the hearing, a woman began her testimony by saying that she’d “learned more today than in all my years at school.” Last to testify was Black Gotham founder Kamau Ware, who talked about how important it is to have the opportunity to tell history better in order to better understand who we are as citizens of the United States. Although he never mentioned Roosevelt or Columbus, Ware ended by concurring with earlier speakers’ sentiments: “and remove Sims.”
Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers hearings continue next week: in the Bronx on Monday, November 27 and on Staten Island on Tuesday, November 28.