The Washington Street Advocacy Group attempts to maintain this tracker of DCLA monument projects to assist City Council oversight. Please contact Todd Fine at firstname.lastname@example.org if you learn any updates: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1n00wqQTQMkUA020AXJI12hzRwdrx_EOWRGg-eIqLRnU/edit?usp=sharing
When it comes to public monuments, "where" is just as important as "who" or "what."
Yet, the Washington Street Advocacy Group has argued that in New York City’s rushed effort to build new monuments to promote diversity, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is disregarding the important consideration of “place.” We have argued that at least three of the locations for the City's new monuments are inexplicable, leading to puzzlement among historians and even community backlash.
The first case is a new monument for black history in Central Park. This monument, which is to be selected through the government's Percent for Art program, was pitched as finally recognizing Seneca Village, the black community that was razed to build Central Park in the 1850s.
Yet, the City’s proposed location for this monument is at 106th Street, blocks away from the location of Seneca Village, which covered present-day streets from 82nd to 89th Street. When asked by The New York Times why the City was planning to memorialize Seneca Village at a location so far away, the Department of Cultural Affairs stated that this memorial would not strictly address Seneca Village but would also honor the prominent black family of Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons, along with their daughter Maritcha.
The problem is that the 106th Street location is even more inappropriate than Seneca Village as a place to recognize the Lyons family. There is no indication that this accomplished family lived near current-day 106th Street (which wasn’t developed much at that time), and the family’s primary claims to historical fame involve the establishment of the Colored Seamen's Home in Lower Manhattan at several addresses near the South Street Seaport and both the mother’s and daughter’s participation in activist and social work activities in Downtown Brooklyn.
This perplexing plan follows another odd siting decision involving another important 19th century black activist, Elizabeth Jennings Graham. Graham is rightfully esteemed for a legal fight against her forcible removal from a Manhattan streetcar in 1854, making her New York's equivalent of Rosa Parks. Yet, rather than site her monument near where the famous incident on the streetcar occurred, near Chatham Square and Park Row in Lower Manhattan, the City has chosen to install it at Grand Central Terminal. This choice can only be explained through expediency. A streetcar is not a train; Grand Central did not exist in 1854; and this incident tells us more about segregation and New York history than transportation superficially.
In the third case, the siting of the SheBuiltNYC monument planned for Queens has caused backlash among Queens residents and scholars. The Mayor's Office chose to recognize singer Billie Holiday, who lived in Addisleigh Park in southeastern Queens, the former home for many jazz greats in a black middle class neighborhood. Yet, rather than site her monument near Linden Boulevard or St. Albans Park, where no significant public art currently exists, the Department of Cultural Affairs chose Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, a location with no real tie to Billie or to jazz history. For many months now since the announcement, residents of southeastern Queens have been spreading petitions calling for a change of the site. There remains no substantive response or justification from the Mayor's Office.
These three confounding decisions on siting would not have been as easily concluded if they had involved monuments proposed by private donors. The City's official guidelines for both public art donations and street co-namings explicitly state that the intended site should be tied to the history of the proposed subject.
The Washington Street Advocacy Group argues that the siting decisions for these monuments should be reconsidered with community and expert input. These monuments do not honor some foreign king or American leader. They recognize real New Yorkers tied to specific locations and neighborhoods. We also argue that connecting memory to historical place is especially important for black history, which involves constant dispossession and the obliteration of memories and signals of place.
Change.org Petition for Billie Holiday: https://www.change.org/p/first-lady-chirlane-mccray-install-shebuiltnyc-billie-holiday-statue-in-addisleigh-park-not-queens-borough-hall
PIX11, August 5, 2019: https://www.pix11.com/2019/08/05/queens-neighborhood-wants-billie-holiday-statue/
New York Post, August 24, 2019: https://nypost.com/2019/08/24/addisleigh-park-leaders-slam-chirlane-mccray-over-billie-holiday-statue-location/
Queens Chronicle, August 29, 2019: https://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/home-for-the-holiday-statue-sparks-debate/article_1afb7004-303d-5d16-beb5-26bc30e936e1.html
New York Post, October 22, 2019: https://nypost.com/2019/10/22/critics-say-location-of-new-city-statues-doesnt-make-historical-sense/
Hyperallergic, October 23, 2019: https://hyperallergic.com/524349/seneca-village-monument-proposal/