Bruce Dearstyne On NYC Monuments Commission Report

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J. Marion Sims statue 5th Ave 103rd Street ManhattanOne item in The New York History Blog‘s “New York History Around the Web This Week” for January 19 was the new Report of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers.

This is the report of the commission appointed by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio last fall amid the controversy surrounding Confederate statues. The mayor charged the commission with coming up with recommendations about potentially controversial monuments and statues in New York City.

The commission held five public meetings, attended by more than 500 people, and received over 3,000 comments via an online survey.

The report is advisory; it now up to the Mayor and City Council to decide how to proceed.

The commission’s report addressed only four monuments directly. The most high-visibility one was that of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle. The report acknowledged receiving “impassioned, highly polarized arguments” pro and con and admitted that “weaving these complexities together into an assessment of the Columbus monument posed an enormous challenge.” The report recommends leaving the statue in place but adding interpretive material and taking other steps, including commissioning new monuments for “groups of people that have been left out, displaced, or erased from public histories and public spaces.”

The report may well be controversial, but it is notable for a number of features:

*The commission was comprised of thoughtful people from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and expertise.

*It describes some of the key discussions and reveals how challenging it was in some instances to get a consensus on recommendations. But the fact that consensus was reached makes this a good model for public considerations of this controversial issue.

* The commission focused on four monuments and presented its report as the beginning of a public dialog rather than a prescriptive set of specific recommendations. The city “should proactively invest in the addition of new public works, public dialogues, and educational initiatives around historical moments and figures,” says the report. There should be a survey of current monuments, and continuing public discussion about policies and approaches. “… sometimes the best option will be to add new works of public art or new educational opportunities,” the report notes.

* It presented five criteria that guided its deliberations and recommendations. They are brief but may be useful as possible models for other discussions. Two might be particularly interesting:

— “Historical understanding respect for and commitment to in-depth and nuanced histories, acknowledging multiple perspectives, including histories that previously have not been privileged”

— ” Complexity acknowledging layered and evolving narratives represented in New York City’s public spaces, with preference for additive, relational, and intersectional approaches over subtractive ones. Monuments and markers have multiple meanings that are difficult to unravel, and it is often impossible to agree on a single meaning.”

The report concludes on an upbeat note: “Fervent dialogue and debate are as New York as the multitude of languages we hear on our subway commute. Now is a time to embrace our opportunity to take a critical look at our history, to understand how this history is inscribed on our public spaces, to listen carefully to one another, and to work actively toward a vision of what we wish our legacy to be.”

Photo: J. Marion Sims statue (5th Ave/103rd Street, Manhattan), recommended for relocation to Green-Wood Cemetery. Photographed by Wikimedia User Jim Henderson.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

One thought on “Bruce Dearstyne On NYC Monuments Commission Report

  1. Barry Popik

    The report discussed only four monuments. What I wrote about wasn’t one of the four, so it was not mentioned at all! I said, I have for over 20 years, that the “Big Apple Corner” honorary street sign that I dedicated in 1997 must be explained with the historic John J. Fitz Gerald newspaper columns in the pavement. In NYS, there are roadside history signs everywhere. I suggested that NYC have apple-shaped “history hotspot” sidewalk markers, where people can point an iPhone to and have it explained in many languages. I wrote to the NYC Culture Commissioner about my displeasure waiting many months for nothing at all. He wasn’t kind enough to respond!


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