NEW YORK, NY 10007
(212) 788-6969


October 9, 2017

Tom Finkelpearl
Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs
31 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007

Darren Walker
President, Ford Foundation
1440 Broadway
New York, NY 10018

Dear Commissioner Finkelpearl and President Walker,

Congratulations (and perhaps condolences, too) on being appointed to co-chair the
Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. In the wake of
violence in Charlottesville and public controversy over historic figures tied to racist and
xenophobic movements, we commend Mayor de Blasio’s effort to review and evaluate
symbols of hate on city property across NYC. We are grateful to the two of you for co-
chairing this important and challenging effort.

At this moment, it is important for the City of New York to examine and remove existing
statutes and markers that glamorize racism – so we appreciate the charge of the
commission to “develop guidelines on how the City should address monuments seen as
oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York City.”

But addressing oppressive symbols only gets half the job done. We believe that it is
important that we also do more as a city to recognize and commemorate a far more
inclusive set of histories, communities, cultures, struggles, and sites.

New York City’s landmark designation and historic districts program (while very
valuable to the city) is not designed to meet this goal. Designation is applied to buildings
that are over 30 years old, with distinctive aesthetic character. The process is focused on
the preservation of structures. In some cases -- such as the Stonewall Inn -- that overlaps
with the commemoration of a key moment in NYC’s history, and with the story of a
community’s struggle. In many cases, however, there is no designation-worthy structure
for stories that should be honored. There are many sites, figure and places that have
played a critical role in shaping our city’s history, but that do not meet the specific
criteria of a landmark or require the rigorous protections that the landmark designation
Three examples:

• The building in Brownsville that housed the first birth-control clinic in the
country (and where the first raid took place) is no longer standing, but surely it
would nonetheless be valuable to recognize.
• The 1917 silent march down Fifth Avenue, organized by the NAACP, has been
commemorated with exhibitions, and its centennial was even honored on the
Google home-page -- but we believe it merits a marker on Fifth Avenue itself.
• On a darker, but no less important note, there are no historic markers at sites
associated with the Draft Riots in July 1863, the largest riot in American history,
when African-Americans were lynched and hundreds of people were killed.

Unfortunately, NYC today lacks a program for such recognition. New York State’s
historic marker program was discontinued in 1966, leaving localities responsible for
approving, installing and maintaining historic markers -- but New York City did not pick
up this responsibility. On several rare occasions, the City has acted: after a long campaign
and City Council legislation, the Parks Department placed a plaque to mark the spot of
the site on Wall Street where the City operated a slave market for over 50 years. But no
broader program has been established. We believe the time has come for us to do so.

To fill this gap, we call on your commission to consider the creation of a new NYC
Historic and Cultural Marker Program, with a focus on commemorating critical
elements of our city’s history that are not adequately recognized through the landmarks
process. Such a program would:

• Provide interpretive and interactive materials to educate New Yorkers and visitors
about a diverse range of cultural and historical sites.
• Commemorate important events, structures and figures where they are no longer
visible on the street or in our built environment.
• Recognize community leaders, activists, and events that have advanced civil and
human rights.
• Tell untold and forgotten stories of New Yorkers, especially those who were
marginalized or oppressed (and therefore lack historic structures that tell their
• Reinforce our city’s values of inclusion, civil rights, and community
empowerment, while also being honest about many times in our history when
NYC has not been characterized by those values.

This would not be a simple or value-free process, of course, since history is hotly
contested and never neutral. It would require robust and diverse community and
stakeholder engagement. However, there is strong work to build on, by
museums/historical societies and community-based organizations, nonprofits and experts
in NYC to identify and recognize places that are not eligible or appropriate for the City’s
formal landmark designation process. Efforts such as REPOhistory, Place Matters, the
Historical Landmarks Preservation Center’s Cultural Medallion Program, and the
Weeksville Heritage Center document many places that evoke associations with history,
memory and tradition, with a focus on retrieving absent or repressed historical narratives.

The “Lynching in America” work currently being done by the Equal Justice Institute (and
recently on display at the Brooklyn Museum) is a powerful model for dealing with sites
of pain and terror.

A formal NYC Historic and Cultural Marker Program would integrate physical markers
into NYC’s streetscape and accompany them with online, interactive materials to unearth
our rich, diverse and complex histories, and to tell important stories that shape the city we
live in today.

We hope that you will consider this proposal, in addition to your critical work reviewing
“symbols of hate.” We would be very happy to meet with commission -- perhaps along
with some of the organizations who have been doing this work for decades -- to discuss
the idea in more detail.

Thank you for your consideration, and your service.


New York City Council Member Brad Lander

New York City Council Member Laurie Cumbo

Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer


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