Manhattan’s Circle of Heroes monument to essential workers will be moved after community uproar

Row on the Hudson

Manhattan’s Circle of Heroes monument to essential workers will be moved after community uproar

New York State revealed renderings and broke ground on the Essential Workers Memorial and Park on June 25. (Courtesy the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s planned $3 million tribute to essential workers at Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City, the Circle of Heroes monument, has been scrapped. That comes only days after officials paused the recently revealed project due to widespread backlash from Hudson River-abutting residents in Lower Manhattan.

The naming of a new location for the Circle of Heroes is forthcoming although, as noted by the Daily News, it will remain in Battery Park City but outside of the confines of Rockefeller Park.

“When additional facts are brought to your attention it’s prudent to analyze those and pivot, which is what we did,” George Tsunis, president of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), reportedly told incensed neighborhood residents of the reversal. “The governor is very well aware of what’s happening and the governor is the one who’s pushing the ‘let’s find another location.’”

The BPCA, a powerful New York State-run public-benefit corporation, owns and manages the 92-acre neighborhood. Tsunis, a hotelier, who as pointed out by the Daily News does not live in Battery Park City, is also a Cuomo donor and appointee.

The initial idea for a monument honoring the city’s essential workers was first in announced February. On June 23, Cuomo’s office released renderings of the Circle of Heroes design, which depicted an eternal flame (“a symbol of New York State’s everlasting gratitude for essential workers”) ringed by 19 red maple trees representing the healthcare professionals, transit workers, government employees, service and hospitality workers, paramedics, teachers, and others who carried America’s largest city through the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

“While we will never be able to fully repay our essential workers, we can honor and celebrate them with this monument that will stand forever as a tribute to all that they have done for New York in our greatest moment of need and beyond,” said Cuomo.

In addition to publicly revealing renderings of the monument, the governor’s office also announced the after-the-fact groundbreaking of the monument and an anticipated completion just ahead of Labor Day of this year. With that, bulldozers were brought in, tout de suite,  to remove six mature trees as part of the pre-construction process at the 8-acre Rockefeller Park, the largest swath of open green space within Battery Park City’s 36-acre park system. As noted by Gothamist, the worksite for the monument would have taken up 14,000 square feet, or roughly 10 percent of the park.

view of a city park in manhattan with tall towers looming over it
Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City, Manhattan. (Patrick Nouhailler/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Somewhere along the way, The Circle of Heroes skipped a crucial step in its path to realization for a project of its size and scope: public hearings and meetings for the community to learn more about, and provide feedback to, the planned design.

The furtive nature of the planned monument instantly drew outrage from city officials and blindsided Battery Park City residents who were largely unaware of the monument plans until the renderings were released and the bulldozers arrived. Opening in 1992 with a design by Carr, Lynch, Hack & Sandell (now Carr, Lynch & Sandell) with landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, the terraced Rockefeller Park features a large open lawn, ball courts, playground, lily pond, a diverse number of planted landscapes, public art, and an open-air pavilion. The area that would have given way to The Circle of Heroes is in a particularly shady swath of the park, a beloved refuge in Lower Manhattan due to its relatively spacious size and the plethora of public amenities.

Those protesting Circle of Heroes aren’t, of course, up in arms about the monument itself—some of those must staunchly against the project have been essential workers. Coming together under the #PauseTheSaw campaign, a petition, and grassroots community organizing, opponents bemoaned the fact that the Circle of Heroes would result in the loss of invaluable public green space, even if the planned monument comprised a fraction of the park and involved the planting of new trees.

Community members, dozens of whom sat in and camped out in the park to block bulldozers from taking down the existing trees (the efforts were successful), have also pointed out the wide number of memorials and monuments that are already in Battery Park City. Some of those have also skirted local engagement, including two installed within the last 12 months. But, largely, most of the frustration stemmed from the fact that the larger community was left in the dark for a project that, in theory, residents support, just not necessarily in their own neighborhood.

As noted by Tribeca Trib, Manhattan Community Board 1 (CB1) went as far as to pass a resolution in February opposing any future monuments to front-line workers slated for Battery Park City. CB 1 implored Cuomo to look outside of the neighborhood to other areas of the city “that were more deeply affected” by the COVID-19 crisis such as Elmhurst, Queens.

City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents Battery Park City, also came out strongly against the project due to the dearth of transparency surrounding it.

“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 in a statement shared by Gothamist. “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.”

(It should be noted that the Circle of Heroes, a space that “represents how all New Yorkers came together to support each other,” is not envisioned as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the pandemic as described by Chin although many essential workers, who the planned monument honors, did indeed succumb to the virus.)

Elected officials joining Chin in requesting that Cuomo rethink the decision to create the monument in Rockefeller Park have included Representative Jerry Nadler and State Senator Brian Kavanagh.

Outside of New York City, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has also voiced its opposition while calling attention to a “key issue” that had been “lost in the furor.” Rockefeller Park is likely eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and, in turn, any significant alterations to the park would have to through a review pursuant to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. There is currently no indication that that happened. TCLF noted in an article detailing the significance of the park that it had “reached out to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) on Thursday, July 1, and learned the SHPO was not aware of plans for the memorial to be sited in Rockefeller Park.”

(Courtesy the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo)

Nord Wennerstrom, director of communications for TCLF, told AN late last week that his office’s “phones had been ringing off the hook” about the planned monument.

As for the yet-to-be-announced new location for the Circle of Heroes, a statement released by Tsunis explained that the BPCA will “continue to engage with our neighbors, representatives of essential workers and the Governor’s office to discuss the location of the monument in Battery Park City to ensure it is one that’s optimal for the entire community.”

AN will update this article accordingly when the new location is revealed as well as reaction to it.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has not commented on the clash in Battery Park City, is celebrating the city’s front-line workers with a proper ticker-tape parade kicking off later today, July 7. Dubbed the Hometown Heroes parade, it will feature 14 different floats representing 260 different groups of essential workers. Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse from Queens who was the first American to be inoculated against COVID-19 will serve as grand marshal of the parade, which is being scaled back due to the intense heat and humidity currently gripping the East Coast.