Columbus Statue Still Getting Round-the-Clock Police Protection

Guarding Columbus.

By Christopher Breslin

On a rainy Thursday morning several months ago in June the police arrived at Columbus Circle and they have not left since. The NYPD has been there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They sit parked in a van with their lights on and now this area resembles an occupied territory with barricades.

The fountain area below the statue of Christopher Columbus was once a place where people sat out in the open air and ate their lunches, and probably the most dramatic things to happen were teenage kids skateboarding or some homeless people bathing in the fountain.

The police detail arrived after the marches starting last June to protest the death of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of police officers. Some activists had called for the monument to be taken down, given Columbus’ brutality to Native Americans. In Virginia, a Columbus statue was torn down, set on fire and thrown in a lake last year. Other monuments to the explorer in New York have also had constant police protection.

The NYPD has not given us a tally of how much it costs to give the marble statue round-the-clock protection, but it’s undoubtedly in the tens of thousands of dollars — if not the hundreds of thousands.

On a cold and windy day, I walked over to Columbus Circle to ask police officers and people on the street what they thought.

One officer said, “No one knows (when we will leave); it is not going to be anytime soon.”

His partner said, “It will be a very long time, that’s for sure.”

A third officer from the elite NYPD counter-terrorism force took the opportunity to express his patriotic feelings.

“People today have to understand we don’t live in the past and today is a very different world and you can be anything you want to be today,” he said. “In other times you did not have that chance. I came to this country at fifteen from Colombia and I am very proud to be here as a police officer.”

Outside the Whole Foods store at Columbus Circle people expressed a wide range of views.

Jimmy Burke who has lived on the Upper West Side for thirty-two years said, “Time for Columbus to go. Columbus wasn’t so hip; he did a lot wrong back then.”

John Miller a plumber living and working on the Upper West Side for over 40 years said, “yes, take the statue down. A new way of looking at things.”

Marcy May who was sitting in her car near Columbus Circle, enjoying an afternoon slice of pizza said, “put the statue in a museum and explain both sides of the story to children that’s the best thing to do.”

Olga Ulaj said, “Keep it…You can’t change history.”

To which her friend Maria Orloff added, “Isn’t that why it’s called history in the first place. It should stay; yes.”

The city has previously considered taking it down. In September of 2017, Mayor de Blasio established the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers. Three months later the committee said it should stay up, but that there ought to be more historical context around it like plaques or markers. de Blasio said at the time that “reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution.”

The 2017 report also put forth the idea of commissioning a new monument recognizing indigenous people. But on any walk around Columbus Circle today, all you will see is the police van, metal barricades, and nothing else.

Governor Cuomo has opposed removing the statue. “I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support,” he said in June. “But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian-American contribution to New York.  So, for that reason I support it.” In September of 2018 the statue was listed on the State Register after a unanimous vote of the New York State Board for Historic Preservation. The New York State Historic Preservation Office immediately recommended that the National Park Services add the monument to the National Register of Historic Places.

Gabe Friedman sees things differently. He started one of many online Change.org petitions to rename Columbus Circle and, as of today, he has 14,874 signatures.

Betty Lyons, the executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance, issued a statement back in 2018: “The Governor’s willful intent to keep promoting Columbus after knowing the death, destruction, and domination his voyage brought upon these lands and indigenous peoples is unconscionable and outrageous.”

Angelo Vivolo, President of The Columbus Heritage Foundation, told me, “We want the statue to stay…you cannot fault Columbus for what was going on at the time.  You just can’t.”

None of what is going on today would have ever been imaginable to Gaetano Russo, the 19th-Century Italian artist who carved the statue of Christopher Columbus. Unveiled on October 12, 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, it was a gift to the city from New York’s Italian-American community.

HISTORY, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 59 comments | permalink
    1. Brenda says:

      Seriously?

    2. Rena says:

      What an interesting and insightful article- I had no idea this was going on and I have walked by this daily for years. Thanks for sharing.

    3. Otis says:

      With all the problems NYC is facing today it’s a tragedy we have to waste valuable resources to protect this statue from thugs.

      • Leon says:

        I agree. What a waste. This revisionist history is ridiculous. The norms of behavior were different at the time. Don’t we have better things to spend our time and money on?

        I spent my whole live thinking I was a liberal Democrat until I moved to the UWS. I wish people here would stop creating drama and fake causes when there are so many real problems in the world.

        • woodcider says:

          LOL @ “revisionist history” when you were never taught real history. The elevation of Columbus is recent and full on propaganda. Columbus was reviled in his own time.

      • Anthony says:

        Even if the risk to the statue seems not worth it, is it the worst thing in the world to have two cops around there?

        it’s not like they can’t report on other crime, and them just standing there prevents other crimes. it’s a big intersection with a line of sight to a big chunk of that entrance tot he park and the surrounding streets, a couple of high traffic subway entrances etc….

    4. lizzie says:

      What a waste of resources. How about adding surveillance cameras instead? Surely the police could be dispatched quickly enough to stop any vandalization. It would take a fair number of people and a lot of equipment to seriously damage that monument.

      • Sid says:

        Because cameras don’t give off the same level of toxic machismo that having armed men at a statue give off.

    5. Eric says:

      “The NYPD has not given us a tally of how much it costs to give the marble statue round-the-clock protection, but it’s undoubtedly in the tens of thousands of dollars — if not the hundreds of thousands.”

      Let’s be real, the circle is a busy place with busy Subway stations so having cops in that area 24/7 could easily be considered a good thing. If the expense had been cast in that light it would not seem unusual or outrageous.

      The barricades and the lights may be overkill and, being upper west siders, we are required to disagree loudly amongst ourselves as to whether the reason to have them there was the right one, but I believe the result is a good thing.

      • Dan says:

        Agree, very thoughtful comment!

        • Brandon says:

          How is that thoughtful? If anything, it’s thoughtless.

          That fountain area is supposed to be public space. The NYPD has forcibly occupied that space now for months, taking it away from the public and apparently planning to keep it that way open-endedly with no imminent threat to justify it.

          If you believe in civil liberties, this should infuriate you.

          • Rob G. says:

            Said public needs to abide by reasonable standards when using a public space. Those standards don’t include vandalizing or defacing it. Until the crazies lighten up on their obsession with erasing history, the cops and barricades will, and should, remain there.

            • Brandon says:

              Someone sure hoodwinked you! The police presence is not about protecting “history” or whatever you think is under threat. It’s purely a show of force at this point, meant to remind us who’s got the guns.

              If you think that is worthwhile (and it isn’t), there are far better ways to do it than by depriving us citizens of our shared right to space we all pay for.

          • Eric says:

            Brandon writes “It’s purely a show of force at this point, meant to remind us who’s got the guns.”

            I see. That’s new information. Thanks for that. Just out of curiosity, do you have a source for that?

    6. Sid says:

      What a waste of taxpayer money.

      • Kindergarten says:

        Just like Michelangelo’s David in Firenze, we could keep original in museum, create a copy and put it outdoor. Then it’s ok to destroy copied Columbus over and over. It cuts down cost of policemen onsite.

    7. EGF says:

      Enough already with the false outrage. Let’s focus on people who are actually alive and doing terrible things.

    8. wombatNYC says:

      Was not too long ago that I was able to get to the Head Only portion of the sculpture. It was some sort of Art Exhibit that allowed viewers to climb stairs to the top. Pre Covid, Pre Trump . I miss those years terribly

      • NYCUWS says:

        WombatNYC- I recall that exhibit, that is one of my favorite and most memorable free exhibit in the city. I miss those days as well.

    9. C. Kerr Uvtrooth says:

      Re: “…given Columbus’ brutality to Native Americans.”
      WRONG! Columbus NEVER set foot on the land-mass that would become the U.S., and thus NEVER saw nor harmed any Native Americans!
      Google “did Columbus ever set foot on U.S. soil” and you’ll learn that from a variety of reliable sources.
      So there was NO “death, destruction, and domination (he) brought upon these lands”, as Ms. Lyons wrongly stated.
      Columbus DID reach several Caribbean islands AND the place that would later become VENEZUELA…but he had no G.P.S. and thus was so ‘farblunget’ that he thought he had reached Asia!

    10. Will says:

      Tear it down already

    11. Tom says:

      Leave the cops for now. Take down the barricades. It’s a great location to sit and chill for a while, especially as we head towards spring.

      • lynn says:

        There are several areas in the 70’s that would benefit from having 2 policemen on patrol 24/7. Where exactly are the groups that are posing an imminent threat to this statue?

        • Tom says:

          Think police fear moment they leave some group will show up within hour and do bad things. They started this with zero exit strategy.

    12. Merrill says:

      One thing to add to this discussion, the statue of Columbus opposite Shakespeare at the beginning of The Mall in Central Park has also been under 24/7 surveillance/”protection” for as long as the other more prominent counterpart.

      It’s normally one or two cops. The SmartCar NYPD cruiser idles with the engine running, A/C this summer and heat now.

      All around, spectacular waste of tax payer money, not to mention bad for the otherwise serene environment.

      • PedestrianJustice says:

        Can confirm that three little SMART NYPD patrol cars were in front of the Columbus statue in Central Park at 7am this morning (Saturday). Been that way since June. Sigh.

      • AllyneZ says:

        And the same police guarding Christopher did nothing to stop someone from climbing onto another statue on the mall. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

    13. Dwave27 says:

      Resources aren’t being wasted. Who doesn’t think that is a good location for police to be stationed? I would be worried if there wasn’t cops stationed in the area. CC is very populated area…Not such a big deal people.

    14. UWS Craig says:

      The Columbus statue is repugnant – he was an imperialist and a murderer. Let’s replace him with someone we all can rally around – Barack Obama Circle!

    15. Coach Tim Cavanaugh says:

      This is a great article that shows two sides of a very controversial subject. The bottom line is it is a landmark and what’s done is done and we cannot change it. What we can do is move forward and learn from it
      Your writing style reminds me of Breslin the columnist, is there any relation here?

    16. Rich says:

      Incredibly well written. Very breslinian! Fair, balanced and honest reporting.

    17. Kerry says:

      Reading this article makes me feel like I am walking through the New York City streets interviewing the police officers myself. Very well written. Both sides of the debate were covered.

    18. ERIC YELLIN says:

      Thanks for this. A very informative piece. Always good to get the conversation started.

    19. Craig says:

      Wonderfully written and insightful.

      Historical figures should be judged by the norms during their lives. I’m sure 500 years from now, people will have plenty to say about all the bad things we did.

    20. I had to do a double take with the Breslin byline. I think the folks quoted in the article reflect how the celebration of Columbus has turned into a polarizing topic. I agree with some of the other reader comments that too many resources are being expended. Tough situation.

    21. J Rose says:

      Christopher Breslin has a gift for writing. He is able to talk with people and find truth in their words. I hope he writes more for the westside rag. Hopefully, his writing can be enjoyed by many. True writer.

    22. Andrew Veith says:

      Insightful and well written article Chris Breslin! As a long time UWS resident it’s so intriguing to consider these issues that have become a part of our daily lives yet barely get brought up for conversation. It’s fascinating to hear the different sides of the story and the passions it provokes. Please keep writing and inspiring this type of reflection for our UWS community. Bravo!

    23. UWSdr says:

      An overly solicitous article by the WSR where ‘both sides’ are referenced when there is clearly no present threat to this monument; police resources are being allocated incorrectly. However, hats off for their neutral stance. The most important takeaway here is that UWSHebrew has retired. Without a doubt this is one hot button topic they would have commented on. I always wanted them to shut up, but in their absence I miss them, Maybe they are crankypants but I miss the beforetimes.

    24. HIM CASH says:

      So are the 24 hour police around the synagogue or school on 79th and Amsterdam worth discussing too?

      • Selfie with Policemen says:

        If synagogue pays substantially higher tax to city government, then 24 hours police protection looks easier to get.
        That’s how much corporations, condo residents around Columbus circle pay as city tax.

    25. John E. says:

      This city is facing enormous difficulties – a fiscal crisis, huge unemployment numbers, businesses gone for good, rising crime rates and this is what people are fixated on?

      Not to mention Columbus Circle is supposed to be a more accessible place where people can either admire or curse at the statue up close. I remember how dirty, ugly and desolate the circle looked like when I was a kid visiting the car show at the Coliseum with my dad.

    26. MikeMouse says:

      Understanding perspectives can help clear confusion. What does the other person see or feel? Why do they feel this way?

    27. Josh says:

      The heavy police presence is an obvious waste of money, resources, and contributes to our city feeling like it’s under constant occupation. There are dozens of police cars parked less than a block away – if there was ever a serious attempt to remove the statue without authorization there could be a heavy police response within seconds. Having a 24/7 guard and taking away a vital public space is wholly unnecessary.
      While we’re at it, someone should look at the parking lot the NYPD has carved out for its officers personal vehicles on CPW from 59th to 62nd. Did the community board every approve this allocation of public space? Whoever is commander there should look into how many of his officers have purposefully defaced license plates as well. The cops do it so they can avoid red light cameras, speeding cameras in school zones, and tolls on the bridges. It’s open theft from the city and bald faced corruption. Every officer who steals openly like that, and every commander who lets them get away with it, should face serious criminal charges.

    28. Criminal Catcher says:

      Brandon, Eric and others hit the nail on the head.
      “The police presence is not about protecting “history” or whatever you think is under threat. It’s purely a show of force at this point, meant to remind us who’s got the guns.”
      Times sq. this weekend is fully parked with police cars, so that no cars can park inside the square area. Last week Police actually caught a driver who hold a gun, which is mostly illegal in New York unless gun owner has registered.
      Columbus circle is another trap like Times sq. the best place to catch potential criminals driving-in from other states.

    29. Judy Kass says:

      One can’t rewrite history. Columbus is part of this nation’s past. Keep him in context, like Amerigo Vespucci, for whom is country was named.

    30. Hyman Rosen says:

      Regardless of what Columbus did, I will not kowtow to a heckler’s veto. The statue should stay up precisely because thugs want to tear it down.

    31. Nydia says:

      Columbus through his voyages launched the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of countless Indigenous people. It’s time for him to go. There are lots of other Italian who have brought Beauty into our world – true heroes to honor in place of this killer. So close to Lincoln Square, how about Puccini? We in the 70s already have Verdi Square….

    32. Spyros Venduras says:

      Well done ,

    33. Steven says:

      If people would put half as much energy into building positive things that they do trying to tear things down, the world would be a better place

    34. Ken says:

      The police’s main job is to protect the ruling class and its symbols.

    35. Sam Katz says:

      So many opinions — and such ignorance about the origins of the statue. The monument at Columbus Circle, while unfortunately using Columbus to represent the Italian contribution to America — was erected in the wake of the Crescent City Murders: the largest mass lynching in America, which occurred in 1891 in New Orleans when a dozen Italian immigrants (fruit sellers, peddlers, etc.) were tried and acquitted of killing a Police Chief. While they were innocent and declared such, NOLA was so full of prejudice that a mob stormed the prison, dragged the immigrants out, and hanged them. It terrified all immigrants and so a group in NYC pooled their funds and erected this monument. So, while you’re mostly screaming about Columbus, ironically the moment was intended to combat racism and xenophobia.

    36. Jennifer says:

      Everyone should read the first chapter of THE PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn. It’s not revisionist history, it is just bringing light to the horrifying genocide Columbus was responsible for. He was brutal. Just terrible. I think the statue should remain, because clearly he was an important part of history, but let’s not pretend indigenous people are over reacting. It is truly a crime against humanity how they were treated. Perhaps a plaque could be added to explain the atrocities. I’d still like to be able to sit there, but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge this dark, painful part of our nation’s history.

    37. Forced Back into the Closet?
      Pioneering Gay Sculptor Emma Stebbins and Her Columbus Statue Targeted for Takedown in Brooklyn

      Supporters of pioneering gay sculptor Emma Stebbins pushed back against a campaign to take down her celebrated 162-year-old Columbus statue in downtown Brooklyn by activists who complain the openly gay artist of the 1800s wasn’t “woke” enough.
      https://www.columbusheritagecoalition.org/2021/02/17/forced-back-into-the-closet/