The fourth of five public hearings about New York City statues and plaques occurred on Monday, November 27 in the Bronx Borough Hall Rotunda.
The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers listened to testimony from both Bronx residents and residents from outside the borough.
While topics like statues and plaques to the veterans of the Confederacy during the Civil War were heavily discussed, the main topic of testimony centered about the status of the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
“How would we rate a monument for George Washington, who was a slave owner,” remarked Assembleyman Michael Bennedetto. “We must take things in context. Christopher Columbus for instance was a great man in what he did; venturing forth in his discovery. That’s what the Columbus statue celebrates. It certainly does not condone or celebrate his treatment of Native Americans.”
“In 1892…the statue was less an homage to a single man than a symbol of pride and a focus for Italian-American immigrants to celebrate their heritage as well as to show the patriotic minds for the United States of America,” said Joanne Rubino, a Bronx resident and member of the Forum of Italian American Educators. “This commission has served to alienate many Italian-Americans. Many feel it is an attempt to discredit Italian-Americans, to rewrite history to suit modern day political agendas.”
Some of the speakers were concerned that by removing the statue, the renaming of other Columbus-related markers would happen, as well, while others claimed removing the statues would be denying our history.
“I think the problem we currently face as a society regarding these monuments is that we are confusing two different issues,” said Shannon Dingle, who has lived in the Bronx for 17 years. “If we take down Columbus, where does it end? Do we rename Columbus Circle, Washington D.C., Columbus, Ohio?”
“There are certainly issues in our history that we have to deal with, but I feel that we do the opposite by hiding these things (removing the statues),” said another Bronxite and attorney, Sergio Villaverde.
Many who testified at the hearing shared the same sympathy while speaking in favor of the statue.
Others spoke against the statue because they claimed Columbus’ discovery of the Americas was false and his actions were not representative of Italian people.
“Claims that Columbus discovered America aren’t true as millions of people, my ancestors, already flourished here,” said a member of the Onondaga Nation also present at the hearing. “Keeping the monuments of him up is a continued act of erasure to ensure that Americans will never be educated on our harsh, shared history.”
Arnold Arnez, a member of the Quechua people, an indigenous population from South America, insisted the Columbus statue be removed. In its place should stand a statue of the Lenape people, the native population who lived in modern-day New York City.
“What is a statue? It is not just what is past, but what is history lived out now,” said Arnez. “Columbus can not truly represent Italy’s rich history with his violent character.”
Community members suggested that additional text be added at the statue’s base to explain the history of Christopher Columbus and the Native Americans he encountered.
During the meeting, Rubino also presented a petition with over 1,000 signatures from Senator Jeff Klein to the city’s commission.
The petition included signatures from many Italian-American groups, as well as the signatures of Senator Klein and Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj.
The mayor’s advisory committee conducted its final public hearing in Staten Island on Tuesday, November 28..