It’s Official: Columbus Stays

Friday, January 12, 2018

Well it’s official: Columbus Circle will stay Columbus Circle. After an exhaustive review, Mayor De Blasio has announced that the statue of Christopher Columbus on 59th Street will remain there, where it can continue to “discover” gridlocked traffic and pigeon poop every day.

The decision was in accordance with the recommendations of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, a group established in September to review some of New York’s more controversial monuments.

After three months of discussions, the commission recommended the removal of one monument, the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims at 103rd and Fifth. Although Sims was once called “the father of modern gynecology,” his use of enslaved black women as unwilling test subjects has attracted controversy in more recent times. Mayor De Blasio announced that the statue would be relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery, where Sims is buried.

The commission also came close to suggesting the removal of the statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History. Although the Commission did not examine Roosevelt’s own controversial imperialism, it noted that the composition of the statue, with Roosevelt towering over African and Native American figures, was an unpleasant symbol of racial superiority. The deadlocked commission was unable to make a recommendation either way, and it was left to Mayor De Blasio to decide that the statue remain.

But the biggest question had been what suggestions that the commission regarding Columbus Circle. Although long considered an American hero, Christopher Columbus has gradually become a controversial figure for his genocidal actions against the indigenous people he encountered and his role in the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. More broadly, some have said that Columbus ushered in a bloodthirsty, greedy era of exploration that would lead to the destructions of civilizations in the Americas, the subjugation of peoples on both sides of the Atlantic and the creation of new system of wealth and power predicated on those abuses that remains largely intact to this day. Those same critics might also argue that failing to address those atrocities—namely, the oppression of African peoples and the murder and resettlement of Native Americans—has stopped the United States from ever truly living up to its guiding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the commission took a different view. Columbus’s name, they noted, is already on a lot of other things, like the District of Columbia and Columbia University. They also argued that the explorer was “an important source of ethnic pride during a time of great discrimination against Italian Americans.” Ultimately, their recommendation was that the statue be left in place, but with more historical information about Columbus. De Blasio abided by these suggestions, while also announcing the creation of a new statue nearby recognizing the contributions of indigenous people.

A marker on the “Canyon of Heroes” commemorating notorious Nazi collaborator Marshall Philippe Pétain was also scrutinized by the commission, which ultimately decided that the unique historic nature of the Canyon of Heroes was enough to overrule Pétain’s misdeeds, but that the Canyon’s name should probably be changed to something with more nuance.

“Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution,” said Mayor De Blasio. “Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely – the representations of these histories. 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.”


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