NEW YORK, NY — A city-appointed commission concluded a nearly five-month review of controversial New York City monuments by deciding only to relocate one and leave the rest mostly as they are, officials said Friday.
The city will move a Central Park monument to J. Marion Sims — an early gynecologist who experimented on enslaved black women — to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he’s buried.
In a report to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers said the city should add plaques to other controversial landmarks — including the Columbus Circle statue — with historical information about their subjects’ sordid past.
Monuments honoring the French Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain and Theodore Roosevelt will also stay put, with such plaques placed nearby, the city said.
The commission also recommended building new monuments to historical figures from marginalized communities. The city plans to build a new statue honoring indigenous people, such as those Christopher Columbus slaughtered, at an undetermined site, the mayor’s office said.
“Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely – the representations of these histories,” de Blasio said in a statement. “And we’ll be taking a hard look at who has been left out and seeing where we can add new work to ensure our public spaces reflect the diversity and values of our great city.”
The city Public Design Commission has to approve plans to move, alter or build statues on city property.
The end of a monthslong process of deciding what to do with the city’s unsavory landmarks has now concluded well after the controversy that sparked it — a white supremacist rally in August around a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. The violence that followed killed one anti-racist counter-protester.
The statue of Sims at Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street drew protests last year from activist groups and elected officials. They argued the city should tear down the monument to a 19th-century doctor who thought black women didn’t feel pain and tortured them in the name of medicine.
The city plans to put plaques alongside the statue at Green-Wood Cemetery and its former Manhattan home. Officials will also commission a new artwork that reflects Sims’ legacy and promote “in-depth public dialogues” on the history of medical experiments on people of color.
State Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Harlem) praised the city’s decision to relocate what he called a “hateful symbol.”
“[T]his will help us move towards a city that truly celebrates the many accomplishments of women and people of color, rather than one that glorifies a racist and sexist past,” Benjamin said in a statement.
De Blasio said on Twitter in August that the marker honoring Petain in Lower Manhattan’s so-called “Canyon of Heroes” would be “one of the first we remove.” He later walked that back, saying he meant it would be included in the commission’s review.
All markers commemorating people honored with ticker-tape parades on Broadway will stay put, but the city will find ways to add information about them, the mayor said.
The commission wanted to go a step further and strip the sreet of the name “Canyon of Heroes,” because some people honored there “do not reflect contemporary values of New York City.”
But de Blasio will not adopt that recommendation because he favors an “additive” approach to controversial monuments, spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said.
After Charlottesville came an push in New York City to tear down monuments to violent historical figures. The most virulent debate circled the famous Midtown statue of Christopher Columbus, who tortured, raped and murded native people he encountered on expeditions to the Caribbean.
Native American activists and others argued the city should not have a conspicuous monument to a murderous, genocidal explorer. But Italian-American groups objected, saying Columbus is still a potent cultural symbol for them.
(Lead image: A statue of J. Marion Sims at Central Park will be moved to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, city officials said Friday. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)