Treatment of controversial city monuments fosters discussion at Borough Hall

As part of a series of public hearings on the treatment and fate of public monuments in New York City, Brooklynites from every walk of life descended upon Borough Hall on Tuesday, November 21 to give their two cents on how to handle existing monuments and statues of controversial figures across the five boroughs.

The hearing was hosted by the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers, which has been tasked with proposing guidelines for how to deal with the controversies that arise from already in-place monuments and markers.

While the commission’s co-chair Tom Finkelpearl encouraged a broader discussion about the city monuments in terms of today’s political climate, statues of Christopher Columbus (such as the one at the epicenter of Columbus Circle in Manhattan and the one in Borough Hall plaza) were at the forefront of the at times heated debate, the majority of the audience speaking solely in terms of removal.

While there was a bevy of support for the statues, many attendees felt strongly that all commemorations of Columbus should go.

“The Columbus discovery narrative is an objective lie,” said one speaker. “If you come here defending a lie, you either A, did not do your homework or B, you truly do not care. I hope to God it’s the first one.”

And while Italian-Americans have “every right to celebrate [their] heritage,” the speaker stressed that it should not be done “at the extent of robbing black and brown lives – especially when [their] culture has so much more to offer.”

That same speaker disagreed with the idea that Columbus being judged by 21st Century standards is a “false narrative,” noting, “This is not a 21st century issue. This is objective morality.”

Another speaker – an FIT graduate and educator who claims that Columbus was only after the money – asked, “Where are the monuments to the enslaved people? Where are the monuments to those who really made this country great?”

That said, a chorus of support for the Columbus statues came from southwest Brooklyn.

Assemblymember William Colton, who represents parts of Bensonhurst, Bath Beach and Gravesend, kicked off the discussion by presenting over 2,000 signatures from his constituents in defense of Columbus.

“We’re dealing with traditions and emotions,” he said, noting that his community – which is notably diverse – feels “that their traditions should not be under attack” and that, right now, “they feel that they are.”

47th Assembly District Democratic Leader Nancy Tong also testified, stressing that, once a tradition is attacked, all other traditions may be subject to similar criticism. “The Columbus tradition is misunderstood. It absolutely does not stand for hate. It is not a symbol of hate. It is, however, a symbol of overcoming oppression and discrimination. It is a symbol of hope for Italian-American immigrants,” she said.

Bay Ridge resident and former City Council candidate John Quaglione also spoke in favor of the statues and against the lack of leadership on the issue. “Elected officials need to make this decision and be held accountable to the people, not an appointed commission,” he said. “This is clearly a weak attempt at leadership by our mayor on this controversial issue.”

On Columbus, Quaglione said, “We cannot erase history – we must learn from history. Teach what happened so that what we find wrong and inappropriate about anyone we celebrate, anyone in the history book, it never happens again.”

The final hearing in the series was held in Staten Island a week later.

There, Congressmember Dan Donovan – who represents the isle as well as a swathe of southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights and Gravesend – submitted public testimony blasting the exercise (specifically those efforts made to tear down Columbus statues) as setting a dangerous precedent by judging centuries-old historical figures “so to avoid triggering every conceivable sensitivity.”

“Frankly, this entire operation is an exercise in political correctness run amok. A small group of malcontents have focused media attention on a problem that didn’t exist until six months ago, and now a panel of experts must determine which acknowledgements of our shared past are too offensive to remain in existence,” he said. “Christopher Columbus probably wouldn’t contend for the Nobel Peace Prize, but whether folks like it or not, his life shaped 500 years of progress. He’s a symbol of Italian-American pride, generations of whom built this city.”

Furthermore, Donovan made the recommendation to “maintain” the monuments and markers that, “for better or worse, are part of New York City’s past.”

Just under 50 people showed up to the Staten Island hearing.

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