Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a monument in honor of essential workers would be erected in Battery Park City by this fall. The Circle of Heroes, which was designed to “represent the essential workers who served their communities throughout the pandemic,” is due to be installed in Rockefeller Park by September 6th, and Cuomo promised it would “stand forever as a tribute to all that [the workers] have done for New York in our greatest moment of need and beyond.” But local residents and politicians have been up in arms since the announcement, protesting inside the park and delaying the start of the project.
“I have enormous respect for essential workers, but the plan here would ruin an amazing green space in Battery Park,” said Jeff, who is one of the passionate local residents who have been actively involved in trying to block the project from moving forward.
“We should absolutely honor the essential workers, but no one who uses this space daily was involved in the discussion of the design or placement,” said Sissel Juul, a local resident and scientist working in biotech on viral diagnostics and epidemiology. “It’s not that we don’t want a monument—we just don’t want to sacrifice highly used green space and mature trees in the name of essential workers.”
The Circle of Heroes design is supposed to be composed of 19 red maple trees symbolizing the city’s various essential workers, including paramedics, hospitality workers, nurses, transit workers, doctors, teachers, and more. In addition, it will also feature an eternal flame “as a symbol of New York State’s everlasting gratitude for essential workers.” (You can see renderings of it in the tweet below.)
The “Circle of Heroes” monument in NYC will open this Labor Day, honoring the essential workers who carried us through this pandemic.
It will be a permanent tribute to their heroism & service.
These workers have *always* been essential & we are eternally grateful. pic.twitter.com/oA2wrY1iP3
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) June 23, 2021
Juul, who has been an essential worker during the pandemic, was one of the people who launched the neighborhood campaign against the monument last week after Cuomo’s announcement.
“When I saw the announcement of the monument, I posted it to the local public school parents chat group and that’s really how #PauseTheSaws started,” she said. “We are incredibly proud of everyone who is coming out to rally peacefully. We’ve had everyone from newborns to seniors participate. People from all over the city and elected officials have joined the cause as well.”
Locals tell Gothamist that they feel the project has been pushed ahead by the state without any community input on its location; that several trees will be taken down because of construction; that there are already a lot of monuments in this part of Manhattan; that they are worried about kids being burned by the “eternal flame;” and most of all, that the entire neighborhood relies on this park for fresh air and for kids to enjoy.
“The green space and natural light out there is important for people like me who are essential workers, and all the families who live around here,” said Aneil Shirke, an NYU psychiatrist who lives just a few blocks away from the park in Tribeca. Shirke, who coaches little league in the park, said there are almost no other green spaces in the neighborhood—it is one of the largest green spaces south of Central Park—let alone one with so many trees.
“I think green space and nature is really important to mental health,” Shirke, who worked with doctors during the crisis last year, said. “Living things restore a sense of our place in nature.”
Asked how he would respond to people accusing protesters of NIMBYism, he said, “We don’t have another space like this downtown, we just don’t. It’s not that I don’t want the monument in my neighborhood, it just can’t be on the green space.” Shrike suggested other nearby spots on concrete that could have been used instead of this park.
Shirke is among those park regulars, and their children, who have been going there everyday this week to block bulldozers from being able to break ground on the project. A source tells Gothamist that while some electrical work has been completed, no in-the-ground construction will happen until people are out of the way and it’s safe to do so.
Many locals cited how important the park was to the community during the pandemic—to stroll, sit down, have a little free space at a time when social distancing was a must. Cutting down trees before their time, Shirke argues, is similar to the disease’s impact on humans: “To kill living things in order to put up a tombstone is what COVID did. It’s not a memorial to the folks I supported who worked through this thing.”
Tribeca Citizen, a community newspaper, wrote of the plans to chop down trees for the project, “If this goes through, there should be a charge of arborcide against the state. I am not joking. What kind of sane agency/government/elected official — which claims to be a steward of the city’s green spaces — fells six huge, spectacular trees IN A PARK in the name of a monument to serve the public?”
In addition to the #PauseTheSaws hashtag, organizers initially made their plea via a Change.org petition: “Let us continue to enjoy running free in the grass of Rockefeller Park, and please let us keep this park as green and beautiful as it was intended and without the constant reminders of sadness and hard times.”
“The park is constantly very crowded with friends sharing the beautiful escape. Each of us wants to find solitude as we create our own escape in the current world we live in. We want to provide freedoms to our children, without having to worry about the risk of an eternal flame burning them,” the petition continues. “Just stop by and you will see the bustling enjoyment each person feels as they take in the beauty of the grass and the open space and now the heartbreaking sorrow and anger as they see the trucks and workers preparing to break ground.”
State officials say that they are committed to planting new trees in the park, and that various community, union and business leaders were involved with the decision to place the monument there. They also say that the monument has already been moved from the main section of the park into a corner, and that the “hardscape” of the monument—including paths, benches, and a flag pole area—will take up just 2% of current lawn space. (The worksite will take up about 10% of the park: the total square footage of lawns in Rockefeller Park is 143,000 sq. ft., and the entire monument worksite is 14,000 sq. ft.)
“This plan includes the planting of 20 trees for a life-affirming monument in a destination park made for all New Yorkers to enjoy, in the shadow of the symbol of New York’s resilience and openness,” Jordan Bennett, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gothamist. “The location was chosen in an open process by using input from the local community and 23 leaders representing hundreds of thousands of essential workers, and the site design allows for people to continue to enjoy the park space with the hardscape using just two percent of the current lawn. We look forward to working with everyone who uses the public space and to seeing generations of New Yorkers from across the state enjoy and this monument.”
Some activists counter that the only reason Cuomo is placing the statue here is because he controls the Battery Park City Authority “and it’s the one place in NYC where he can put this without any scrutiny.” Cuomo most recently placed a Hurricane Maria Memorial and a Mother Cabrini statue there. Additionally, there are other tributes in the vicinity, such as the Fallen Heroes Memorial and the Irish Hunger Memorial, not to mention the 9/11 Museum and Memorial just across the West Side Highway.
As Tribeca Trib points out, Community Board 1 made a resolution last February opposing any forthcoming essential workers monument be placed in Battery Park City, and called on Cuomo to consider other places in the city “that were more deeply affected” by the pandemic.
A committee of labor union presidents who are donating to Cuomo’s re-election campaign, appointed entirely by Cuomo with zero community representation. If you think Cuomo doesn’t control this committee entirely, you must think he also doesn’t run the MTA
— Adrian Mak (@adrianmak) June 28, 2021
Governor Cuomo announced he was taking away park space last week and the earth moving equipment showed up before the weekend was up. All this because he refuses to work with the Mayor to jointly honor Essential Workers. This is where the children play. #politicsoverparks @NY4P pic.twitter.com/CTr8ixjgQn
— Manhattan Community Board 1 (@CommunityBoard1) June 28, 2021
Local politicians including Assemblymember Deborah Glick have expressed their discomfort with the way the monument was planned and unveiled.
“It is deeply concerning that the proposed Circle of Heroes monument seems to have been designed and placed without adequate input from frontline essential workers or the Battery Park City community,” she said in a statement to Gothamist. “I wish to honor the tremendous essential workers who sacrificed so much to support the City through this unprecedented crisis, and it’s important that any memorial site be designed with input from the workers themselves and from the community in which it will be located.”
“Today, I joined my colleagues representing Lower Manhattan in expressing our concerns to the Governor,” she said. “We understand that the Governor’s office consulted with an “Essential Workers Monument Advisory Committee” made up largely of union leaders, and we have great respect for organized labor, but we believe that a more public, open conversation is essential for a project of this scope and significance.
Council Member Margaret Chin sent a letter to Cuomo’s office on Monday demanding he halt construction until there’s been a “proper process of community engagement.” Her office said they had not received any response yet.
“While I do believe it is appropriate to memorialize those lost to the pandemic, I feel this project has been drafted too hastily and is little more than a gesture,” she said. “Residents rightly point out that a memorial of this magnitude should be in a more central location; the proposed site lies on one of the western-most points of Manhattan, not readily accessible by public transportation.”
Locals celebrated briefly when the bulldozers were moved from the locations they had been for the last several days on Tuesday afternoon. But some told Gothamist they wouldn’t trust anything until Cuomo makes a statement about the status of the project.
“I think it’s just a ploy,” one person said. “I think if people stopped occupying the park they’d bulldoze the trees immediately.”