UPPER WEST SIDE – Amid calls to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Square, a Columbia University history professor and candidate for New York City public advocate has proposed keeping the statue, but dividing the public space around it into three educational "plazas."
David Eisenbach unveiled his design Thursday, saying the three areas would represent "Conquest, Slavery, and Immigration."
“The idea is involving these three sections of the circle, what you can actually do is tell the story of Columbus’ legacy, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Eisenbach told DNAinfo New York.
The design would feature educational panels that explain Columbus' bloody conquests, his exploits with slavery, and the symbol he has since become for Italian-Americans. (The design also leaves room for a panel that explains a monument across the street that commemorates those killed aboard the USS Maine, which sank in the Havana Harbor in 1898 and precipitated the Spanish-American War, which ended up giving the United States control over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines.)
The controversy surrounding the Christopher Columbus monument began after after an anti-racist protester was killed during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last month. A plaque honoring the Confederacy was removed from a church near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, and the city removed two busts of Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson that sat in the Bronx Hall of Fame at Bronx Community College.
On August 21, city councilmembers called for the removal of a East Harlem monument to a doctor who experimented on slaves, and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also suggested the city look at the statue of Columbus for review. Mayor Bill de Blasio is in the process of creating a commission that would review “all symbols of hate” throughout the city, and confirmed the Columbus Circle statue would be considered.
Eisenbach says he is drawing from his experience as a historian in providing a compromise. The candidate said removing the statue would disrespect the Italian immigrants who gifted the monument to the city in 1892, but there was a need to acknowledge Columbus’ full history.
“We need to celebrate and honor the Italian-American immigrants who paid for that statue,” Eisenbach said. “On the other hand, we can’t leave Columbus Circle as it is. It’s not 1892 anymore, we’ve learned a lot since then.”
Eisenbach said the Columbus Circle discussion opens up dialogue for many of the city’s other questionable commemorations. While the focus has been on statues of Confederate Army generals, he added that Union Army leaders such as William Tecumseh Sherman and Phillip Sheridan committed serious offenses that Eisenbach would classify as “war crimes” in today’s perspective.
“Now I’m not saying we need to pull down Sherman or Sheridan’s statue, but what I’m saying is we need to have a discussion,” Eisenbach said. “We need to recognize that this question of tainted heroes is not just one for the South, it’s one for New York City.”
Public Advocate Letitia James agreed that the Columbus Circle statue should stay, and that it should be shaped into a opportunity to teach American history, but she did not specifically comment on Eisenbach's idea.
"As we reflect on monuments throughout our city, we should consider plans to add and redesign spaces that reflect the true history of indigenous and enslaved people in our country and all Americans," James said in a statement.