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.