Facing mounting pressure from residents of Manhattan’s Battery Park City, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has paused work on a “Circle of Heroes” monument honoring essential workers who risked their lives during the pandemic. The memorial, consisting of 19 maple trees encircling an “eternal flame” symbolizing gratitude, is planned for a corner of the neighborhood’s Rockefeller Park.
Critics say the monument will significantly reduce precious green space beloved by locals and visitors alike, and claim the Battery Park City community was not consulted on the project. The plan drew intense backlash almost immediately after it was announced last week, with protesters “holding vigil” at the park and camping out in tents overnight to block construction. On Saturday, neighbors and their families, along with local sports leagues and residents of the nearby Solaire Senior Living Apartments, put up signs reading “Save Our Park” and “#PauseTheSaws,” a hashtag circulating widely on social media.
The primarily residential neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Manhattan is owned by New York State, not the city, and managed by the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), a public-benefit corporation established by the state. In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said the memorial was conceived with “input from the local community and 23 leaders representing hundreds of thousands of essential workers.” But key decision makers for the area, like Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, say they were excluded from the conversation.
“There are no local residents who actually sit on the Battery Park City board, so when the governor says it was done with local input, it’s really just torturing geography over function,” said Eric Gyasi, a community leader and longtime resident of Battery Park City, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The BPCA doesn’t include any residents or neighborhood sports organizations, it’s just a bunch of folks appointed by the governor.”
The BPCA says it will now plan on holding meetings with community members to hear their feedback and insights before resuming work on the controversial project.
“Over the next week the Battery Park City Authority will continue to engage with our neighbors, representatives of essential workers and the governor’s office to discuss the location of the monument in Battery Park City to ensure it is one that’s optimal for the entire community,” said George J. Tsunis, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, in a statement. “Essential workers have dedicated their time, energy and lives to helping New York get through the pandemic and it is an honor to support and memorialize them with a monument that’s as loved and respected as they are.”
“This is the second largest green space after Central Park,” Gyasi added. “It’s used frequently for passive and active recreation, by little leagues, songs circles, baby groups, by our seniors that go out there from the nearby senior home. It’s used by everybody.”
“All of us applaud the efforts of the essential workers — we have doctors and nurses in the neighborhoods, and we believe in honoring our heroes and the sacrifices of the first respondents,” he said. “But we’d like an open and transparent process, and a proper discussion to create a monument that truly honor them.”
In the last five years, two other monuments have been built in the neighborhood — one for Hurricane Maria in 2018 and another for Mother Cabrini last year. All three projects were approved without “any form of public engagement,” said Margaret Chin, the representative for District 1, in a missive to Cuomo on Monday.
The “Circle of Heroes” memorial will be part of a larger a rotunda named “Essential Workers Park,” and building it will require cutting down several mature trees and replacing them with outsourced red maples that are not native to the area. Some worry the new trees will not necessarily thrive in their new home, susceptible to the saltwater flooding that threatens the city’s 520-mile coastline. Gyasi also worries about rare bird species currently nesting in the trees that will be sawed down.
The governor’s office has not yet responded to questions about the residents’ environmental concerns, but says the site design “allows for people to continue to enjoy the park space with the hardscape using just two percent of the current lawn.”
“This plan includes the planting of 20 trees for a life-affirming monument in a destination park made for all New Yorkers to enjoy, in the shadow of the symbol of New York’s resilience and openness,” said Jordan Bennett, a spokesperson for the Cuomo administration.
The Battery Park City residents who spoke to Hyperallergic expressed confusion over the numbers cited by the governor. The total square footage of worksite for the monument, including both hardscape — paths, benches, and a flag pole area — and greenscape will be 14,000, about 10% of the 143,000 square feet of lawns in Rockefeller Park.
Mary Ghicas, a resident of Battery Park City since 2014, says the calculations are irrelevant to the larger conversation. “It’s a non-response — who’s to say what we need and don’t need?” she told Hyperallergic. “At the minimum level, we’re asking for just a dialogue. We would love for our space to not be taken away from the wonderful families who rely on it so heavily, including frontline workers, but at the micro level, can we maybe just have a five minute conversation? That has not happened.”
Others question whether Battery Park City, home to primarily upper-middle class and upper-class New Yorkers, is the right place for a tribute to frontline workers at all. In a letter urging the governor to suspend work on the memorial, New York State Senator Brian Kavanagh and three Lower Manhattan legislators said “serious consideration should be given to the question of whether siting this monument here makes sense, given that Battery Park City was not one of the neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic.”
“There is rich irony in locating this memorial in Battery Park City, a neighborhood that symbolizes the failure of the State and Battery Park City Authority to protect affordable housing,” said Manhattan’s Community Board 1 in a statement. “The families departing from formerly stabilized apartments are an ever-present reminder that essential workers are no longer able to afford living here.”