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Monument to Seneca Village Family Rushed and Historically Inaccurate, Experts Say

The monument to the Lyons family from the historic 19th-century village of mostly Black residents will be placed nearly 20 blocks uptown from its original location in Central Park.

A plaque presently on display in Seneca Village (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Seneca Village — the stretch of land between West 83rd and 89th streets in Central Park — is infamous, yet underrecognized. The site, once home to nearly 300 residents, is a striking example of property that was unjustly snatched from Black Americans in the 1850s to build one of Manhattan’s Crown Jewels. (Of its 300 residents, two-thirds were Black.)

Seneca Village will soon host more than a legacy of displacement (and an underwhelming plaque to acknowledge its former occupants). The New York Times reported on Sunday that the city has commissioned a monument of the Lyons family, celebrated Black Americans and prominent land-owners in Seneca Village.

According to the Central Park Conservancy’s website, the area was home to “the first significant community of African-American property owners.” Members of the Lyons family, contributors to that community, were educators and abolitionists who operated a boardinghouse for Black sailors — which also functioned as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But the structure won’t actually sit in Seneca Village proper. Rather, the monument’s designated spot is nearly 20 blocks uptown, on 106th street. To activist-historian Jacob Morris, the decision — in all of its imprecision — is a slap.

“It’s disrespectful and it’s insulting. And it’s so incomplete,” Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society, told Hyperallergic on Monday.

To Morris — who has fervently campaigned to reassign street names in New York to better reflect the city’s diversity — geography matters.

A map Seneca Village in Central Park, made in 1857 (via Wikimedia Commons)

“The naming or honoring of a person or an organization should be connected to the life and work of the person,” he said. “They’re doing half-a-million-dollar monuments and they’re putting them together with no real thought. Where is just an important as why or who.”

To Michele Bogart, a professor of art and criticism at Stony Brook University, yet another variable is worthy of scrutiny: at what cost?

“It’s all being done on such a massive scale, presumably on a very tight deadline — presumably the end of the Blasio administration,” Bogart told Hyperallergic on Monday.

“I don’t think artworks should be put through on a schedule,” she said. “Time is constitutive of public monuments,” she added.

Discord over the Lyons structure is the latest in string of statue-related controversies in New York City. Try as the mayor might to spread goodwill on the left, Bill de Blasio’s effort to diversify local statues has been marred by conflict. Just last week, his longstanding feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo over the Mother Cabrini statue culminated in a series of pointed, public jabs.

(The saga notably began with a polarizing structure of J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who performed painful, experimental surgeries on enslaved women in the 1800s.)

According to Todd Fine, President of the Washington Street Advisory Group, the city has neglected to involve both experts and local communities in the process.

“The city is, quite admirably, advancing an ambitious and unprecedented program to bring diversity to public monuments,” he told Hyperallergic by email. “However, in their desire to move quickly and make a mark, they are abandoning a fundamental feature of contemporary New York City politics — that the public feels like it needs to have a voice in decision-making. At every stage of the monument initiative, city officials have neglected the views of local constituencies and even their own expert advisers.”

Bogart, Fine, and Morris all suggested a common theme of carelessness — the de Blasio administration, in its haste to repopulate the city with new monuments, may not be dedicating the required care or consideration to each structure.

“A range of factors are considered when selecting sites for public monuments, including feasibility, cost, historical significance, contemporary context, and public prominence,” the DCLA told Hyperallergic in an email. “The Lyons family’s contributions exemplified values that still resonate powerfully here and beyond. Central Park Is an ideal venue to commemorate their extraordinary role in making New York a fairer, more equitable city.”

An aerial view of New York City’s Central Park (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Of equal concern to Fine is the structure’s funding. Although the construction will be driven by private agencies —  the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund — he anticipates that under the strain of deadlines, these monuments may eventually rely on over-extended public programs.

“By not gaining public buy-in and engagement, these new monument builders are also forced to rely on existing public agencies that don’t have the capacity, staff, or funding to pursue these programs … Even if the Ford Foundation funds this particular monument, the money will not be able to support these city agencies that are completely overwhelmed by this initiative.”

In a press release on Tuesday, the city invited artists to submit designs for the monument through an open call portal.

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