Ordering review of statues puts de Blasio in tricky spot
NEW YORK — Elected to lead the biggest city in the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio often seems to hunger for a brighter spotlight. He tried to shape the debate in the last presidential election, only to be spurned by candidates in his own party. He flew to Germany in July to speak at a rally during a meeting of world leaders, only to be criticized for leaving New York hours after a police officer was murdered.Now he has seized hold of the national debate over the removal of Confederate monuments by ordering a review of all possible “symbols of hate” in the city — once again grabbing national attention while simultaneously putting himself in a tricky situation.He has been peppered with questions about how far the review will go to cleanse New York of potentially offensive figures and whether this or that sculpture should stand or fall. Some see him as playing into the hands of President Donald Trump, who warned that the push to remove Confederate monuments could go too far.“He’s going to create some kind of star chamber to see who’s politically correct and who’s not,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian who edited The Encyclopedia of New York City, echoing other historians who have cautioned against the rush to remove statues and monuments.“It’s almost like McCarthyism of a reverse sort: Let’s find out who has got something in their closet that they should be ashamed of. I don’t think we need this,” he said.Ulysses S. Grant — commemorated in at least two statues in Brooklyn and a monumental tomb in Upper Manhattan — issued an order to expel Jews from three states during the Civil War. Horatio Seymour — a New York politician whose portrait is displayed in City Hall — ran as the Democratic presidential candidate against Grant in 1868, heading up a racially charged campaign in which some of his supporters used the slogan, “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.” The Duke of York, namesake of New York City, was involved in the slave trade.On Monday, the mayor found himself defending Christopher Columbus, saying he would march in the Columbus Day Parade as a proud Italian-American. But days earlier his political ally, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, condemned the explorer for atrocities visited on Native Americans, saying she has never marched in the parade and will not this year.De Blasio pried open this Pandora’s box after the deadly rioting on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others rallied to protest the removal of a statue of the Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.De Blasio decried the violence. Then on Aug. 16, while he was vacationing in Rhode Island, he waded in deeper, writing on Twitter that “New York City will conduct a 90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property.”He added: “The commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove.”He was referring to one of approximately 200 brass plaques set in the sidewalk on Broadway in lower Manhattan, which name the people or groups honored there over the years in ticker tape parades.Pétain got his parade in 1931, when he was revered as a French hero of World War I — years before he was involved in the deportation of thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The plaques commemorate many other questionable figures and provide an interesting window into the changing winds of history: They include Italo Balbo, an Italian aviator and fascist; Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator who at times seemed to admire elements of fascism in Germany; the Shah of Iran; and Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan president installed in a CIA-backed coup.Now, two weeks after his tweet, de Blasio has yet to appoint a commission and he has backed away from quick pronouncements, like his vow to remove the Pétain plaque, which remains.“I’m not here to determine what’s subject to review or not,” he said at an unrelated news conference Monday.The commission, he said, “will listen to ideas and concerns from their fellow New Yorkers. They will determine a set of criteria by which we’ll consider these different monuments on city-owned land and make proposals to me about how to handle specific situations.”He said that in some cases the commission could call for the removal of a monument while in others it might recommend adding a plaque “to provide some of the history and provide some of the balance in understanding what happened with this particular individual.” In other cases, the commission might decide that no change should be made, he said.The mayor spent much of the news conference urging against a rush to judgment on the commission’s mission.“I don’t think there was a big hue and cry for a commission to look at very conceivable statue in the city of New York,” said William T. Cunningham, a political consultant who was a spokesman for former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.“The Christopher Columbus monument has become the symbol of when you run into something rashly and don’t think it thoroughly through, you leave yourself open to criticism from places you don’t expect it,” he said. “Here he is, a half Italian-American and he’s getting grief from Italian Americans all over the city of New York.”David Eisenbach, a Columbia University historian who is running for public advocate and supports one of de Blasio’s Democratic mayoral opponents, Sal F. Albanese, has proposed using the area around the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle to create an educational monument to the explorer’s legacy, including the good parts, such as immigration to the New World, and the bad parts, including the destruction of Native American cultures.Eisenbach said he favored the monument commission. “At least we’re having a discussion of all the good points and bad points of all these historical figures, and as a historian I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he said.
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Ordering review of statues puts de Blasio in tricky spot