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The Contentious History of NYC’s Columbus Monuments

In New York City, thousands are calling for the removal of Christopher Columbus statues, which can be found in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Circle in New York (Erik Drost/Flickr)

Last weekend, protesters in New York City shut down Columbus Circle in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and demanded the removal of the statue at its center. Meanwhile, a Change.org petition that calls to rename the circle and remove the statute has gathered more than 8,500 signatures. And yet, the disputed statute, together with four others strewn across the city, still stands intact.

The history of New York City’s Columbus monuments goes back to the 19th century and speaks of the city’s complicated relationship with its Italian community, which created a symbol of ethnic pride in the defamed colonizer in an attempt to relieve xenophobia. But many consider monuments honoring Columbus to be reminders of the genocide, rape, and dispossession of Native Americans and the onset of the transatlantic slave trade.

These New York initiatives happen as Columbus statutes across the country are being torn down, defaced, and beheaded. Most recently, Tower Grove Park in St. Louis, Missouri removed a 140-year-old Columbus statue on its premises yesterday, June 16, saying the decision was taken to “ensure a safe, inclusive and pleasant environment for park visitors and team members alike.”

But in New York, the controversial monument at Columbus Circle enjoys the support and protection of the city and state’s two top officials, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“The statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York,” Cuomo said in a recent press briefing. “And for that reason, I support it.” The statue is now guarded by NYPD officers.

The following is a list of all of NYC’s Columbus statues, how they came to be, and how they were challenged over the years.

Columbus Circle, Manhattan

Designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, the monument was unveiled ceremoniously on October 13, 1892, as part of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic from Spain in 1492. It was one of three monuments that were planned to mark the occasion. And it was in that year that President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday.

The 13-foot marble statue, placed atop a 35-foot granite column on a 28-foot granite pedestal (76 feet in total), is adorned with bronze reliefs representing Columbus’s ships: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. 

The Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle, Manhattan (Wikimedia Commons)

An angel holding a globe is featured below the column. On the pedestal, bronze reliefs depict Colombus’s voyages and landfall in the Caribbean (Columbus never actually stepped foot on mainland North America).

The sculpture, partially made in Rome, was the initiative of Carlo Barsotti, an Italian American businessman and publisher of the Il Progresso Italo Americano newspaper, the first Italian language daily newspaper in New York. Barsotti donated more than half of the  $20,000 needed for the sculpture (∼$563,503 in today’s terms) and raised the rest from members of the community.

An inscription on the pedestal reads: “To Christopher Columbus / the Italians resident in America, / scoffed at before, / during the voyage, menaced, / after it, chained, / as generous as oppressed, / to the world he gave a world.”

These words allude to the Italian American community’s desire for a heroic figure as a symbol of ethnic pride after decades of degradation,  discrimination, and violent treatment as new immigrants in the country.

A year earlier, 11 Italian Americans who had been acquitted of murder were lynched in New Orleans by a mob of thousands. It was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.

Following this traumatic event, Italian immigrants sought recognition in their new country by embracing the myth of Columbus, who was already celebrated as a national symbol, as evidenced by a large number of districts, cities, and squares named after him (including Columbia University in New York), and the adoption of “Columbia” as a personification of the United States.

Historians attribute the resurrection of Columbus’s image, who died a disgraced figure after being arrested for mistreatment of the Taíno population, to author Washington Irving’s fictionalized 1828 biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Irving’s sentimental account portrays Columbus as a heroic figure who bravely ventured into the “New World.”

But now, new generations of Italian Americans are contemplating other historical figures to replace the genocidal colonialist. Some have proposed honoring Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two immigrant anarchists who were executed by electric chair in a Boston prison after a controversial murder trial in 1920.

In 2017, de Blasio assembled the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers in response to calls to remove the Columbus Circle statue. This campaign also targeted the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History and the monument to J. Marion Sims in Central Park (the latter of which has since been torn down). In January of 2018, the advisory commission released its recommendation, which acknowledged the violent history that the Columbus statue represents, but recommended to keep it. The commission adopted an “additive approach,” which focused on new monuments and “fostering dialogue” with educational programs that historically contextualize the statue.

Last week, when asked about the renewed calls to remove the monument and rename the square, de Blasio reiterated that he abides by the commission’s recommendation from 2018.

The Columbus statue in Central Park, New York (smannyrock/Flickr)

The Mall, Central Park

Unveiled in May of 1894, the Columbus statue at the South end of Central Park’s Mall was the second statue erected to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s conquests.

The seven-foot statue was designed by the Spanish sculptor Jeronimo Suñol in 1982. Columbus is featured holding a flag in his right hand; to his right, a globe is positioned atop a capstan covered with rope cables.

The sculpture was donated to the city by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, which was founded in 1869.

In August of 2017, the statue’s hands were stained with red paint and its granite pedestal was graffitied with “Hate will not be tolerated” and “#somethingscoming.” No suspects were arrested and the statue was quickly restored.

Members of the Italian American community celebrating Columbus Day in 2013 at the Columbus Tarinalge in Astoria, New York (Costa Constantinides/Flickr)

Columbus Square, Astoria

At Columbus Triangle between Astoria Boulevard, Hoyt Avenue, and 31st Street stands a modern statute of the conquer, designed by Angelo Racioppi in 1941. The statue was commissioned with funds from the New York City Works Progress Administration Art Project (WPA).

The 7.6-feet monument depicts Columbus as a young explorer helming a rather small ship at his feet. Astoria’s Italian American community started raising funds for the statue in 1920 but failed to achieve the necessary amount. In 1930, a nearby park was renamed to Columbus Square. During World War II, the statue was moved to storage for a few months out of fear that the metal would be used for war purposes.

In August of 2017, anonymous activists sprayed the words “Don’t honor genocide, take it down” on the statue. Prior, a Columbus statue in Yonkers, Westchester County was beheaded. The statue has since been restored.

Seeking alternatives to the disputed monument, some on the internet suggested erecting a statue of actor Christopher Walken or singer Tony Bennett, two Astoria natives.

Columbus statue in D’Auria Murphy, Bronx (Scott, Flickr)

D’Auria Murphy Triangle, Bronx

In 1992, a Columbus bust made in 1918 was moved from middle school PS 45, to the borough’s Little Italy.

The bust was designed by the Italian American sculptor Attilio Piccirilli, who also produced the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle and took part in the creation of the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

In 2015, the statue was defaced with red paint. The incident prompted the local Italian community to form a coalition to protect and preserve the statue.

Columbus Park in Brooklyn, New York (vincent desjardins/Flickr)

Columbus Park, Brooklyn

The Columbus statue in front of the New York State Supreme Court in Downtown Brooklyn has an especially complicated history. The statue was designed by American sculptor Emma Stebbins in 1892 and installed two years later in Central Park. (In 1873, she became the first woman to receive a public art commission from New York City with her Central Park statue “Angel of the Waters.”) It was then removed for restoration, lost twice, rediscovered, and moved twice. The sculpture was finally installed its current location in Brooklyn in 1971 after it was previously instated in Chinatown.

The 7-foot statue, placed over an 11-foot pedestal, depicts Columbus as a navigator with a mantle over his shoulder and a ship tiller in his right hand. The base was designed by Aymar Embury II in 1934.

On Columbus Day of 2019 (also known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day), the sculpture was defaced with spray paint and tagged with the letters “FC.”

A new petition calling to remove the statue and rename the park has garnered a little above 500 signatures to date.

“Columbus did not ‘discover’ anything — the Americas were inhabited by a great diversity of people and cultures,” the petition reads. “Columbus personally launched the enslavement and genocide of Native people and the colonization of the Hemisphere which would be his legacy.”

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