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Monuments commission hears public testimony on Columbus statue

A city commission charged with making recommendations on monuments hears from the public at the first of five scheduled meetings.

A mayoral panel considering the future of New York City's controversial monuments like the statue of Christopher Columbus in Manhattan heard public testimony in Kew Gardens, Queens, Nov. 17, 2017, about which should stay, which should go, and how to grapple with the divisive legacy of historical figures. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

A mayoral panel debating the future of New York City’s controversial monuments like Manhattan’s statue of Christopher Columbus heard public testimony Friday about which should stay, which should go, and how to grapple with history.

Twenty four people addressed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, charged with issuing nonbinding recommendations by Dec. 7 about what the mayor earlier this year called “symbols of hate.”

Five of the 18-person panel hosted the public for more than two hours in Queens Borough Hall, at the first of five scheduled hearings.

Shawnee Rice, who described herself as being of Mohawk ancestry, said the Columbus statue in his eponymous Columbus Circle should be taken down.

“For indigenous people, people of color, especially young folks, it’s problematic when we have to look up and see white men on these pedestals, and we cannot see statues that look like us,” said Rice, 27, of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Columbus is celebrated by some Americans of Italian ancestry as a trailblazing explorer but assailed as a racist perpetrator of genocide by critics.

Robert Graziano, a city bus driver who lives in College Point, Queens, said removing the statue would desecrate the nation’s heritage.

Columbus “was a product of his time,” said Graziano, 46. “Christopher Columbus was a discoverer. He also brought Christianity to the Americas. Christianity as far as a Catholic has been unbelievable, and it changed a lot of our society here in America. To take that away, I feel, is a direct insult to us as Italian Americans.”

Gerald Matacotta, 72, a retired 9th-grade history teacher from Maspeth, Queens, suggested making a cellphone app that could scan a code on the statue or monument that would pull up a range of opinions.

The panel’s roots trace to an Aug. 16 tweet by de Blasio promising the review after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester was slain. Across the country, there has been a debate over whether to remove monuments to Confederate symbols.

In New York, some want the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, to be taken down from Central Park because he experimented on slaves in the 19th century.

“A monument represents the values of the figures memorialized,” so that the values can be emulated, said J.C. Hallman, who wrote an essay about Sims for this month’s Harper’s Magazine that advocated removing the statue.

Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, wants the neighborhood’s statue of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman to be turned to face north, instead of south.

Jeffrey Kroessler, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice librarian, likened removing statues to George Orwell’s “1984” and said the “effort to enforce a single interpretation on the American past” is “totalitarian.”

Robert Holden, a Republican city councilman-elect from Queens, urged the panel: “Let’s not destroy our past to be politically correct now.”

There are more than 800 objects being considered in the Parks Department jurisdiction alone, and many more citywide, said Tom Finkelpearl, the panel’s chairman, who is also de Blasio’s commissioner of cultural affairs. At least two other statues on city property honor Columbus: in Central Park and in front of state Supreme Court in Downtown Brooklyn.

The next hearing is Monday at 10 a.m. in Brooklyn Borough Hall.

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