New York’s City Council is considering a bill that could change the face of monuments across the five boroughs. The legislation would mandate that commemorations of enslavers, people who benefited economically from slavery, and those who enacted violence against Indigenous people “or other crimes against humanity” either be removed or contextualized with plaques.

The proposal, put forward this summer by Bushwick and East New York’s District 37 Council Member Sandy Nurse, has 17 co-sponsors. It is currently stalled in a subcommittee, where it must be approved before it moves on to an all-council vote.

The new law would require the city’s Public Design Commission (PDC) — a group of 11 mayor-appointed officials who sign off on public artworks — to review the city’s art collection with an eye toward subjects’ histories. If the PDC decides not to take down a work depicting an enslaver, explanatory text would be added. 

“This bill recognizes that art and public spaces are not neutral. They hold power and shape our collective consciousness,” Nurse said in a September 19 committee hearing, adding that the legislation is far from an erasure of history. “It is actually an act of remembrance and truth to tell the entire story rather than the convenient one. It asserts that the stories we tell and the art we display must reflect the values of equity, inclusivity, and recognition of the struggles endured by marginalized communities.”

Monuments of historical figures such as George Washington, whose family plantation at Mount Vernon had at least 577 enslaved people throughout his lifetime, stand at sites including Manhattan’s Union Square. Sculptural depictions of the first president, as right-wing media outlets have been eager to point out, would be subject to removal under the new law. It seems more likely, however, that plaques would be added instead.

“I don’t think we are ready to take down George Washington statues as a country and I’m ok with that,” Council Member Nurse told Gothamist. “People can both be capable of great things and great outcomes and also of horrific crimes against humanity at the same time. And we live with those complexities to this day.”

Hyperallergic has contacted Nurse for further comment.

In 2021, a statue of Thomas Jefferson at City Hall was taken down, but a high school in East New York still bears his name. A competitive high school in Tribeca is named after Peter Stuyvesant, who enslaved people and played a large role in expanding the Atlantic slave trade in New York.

Under the new bill, the Departments of Transportation and Education would work together to add explanatory text to sidewalks or other public locations near schools that feature the names of historical figures like Jefferson and Stuyvesant.

The proposed legislation is just the latest push to evaluate New York City’s monuments. A number of NYC’s Confederate statues were removed in 2017, and in 2020, New Yorkers made a renewed call for the city’s five Christopher Columbus statues to come down, including the 13-foot work (atop a 63-foot base) at Columbus Circle. This work would either be removed or visitors to the Manhattan locale would be able to read about Columbus’s violent legacy if the new law is passed.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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