She Built NYC, delayed by COVID-19, now restarted

The art program started in 2018 by former Mayor Bill de Balsio's wife Chirlane McCray is still kicking off with a monument to Shirley Chisholm – details coming soon.

Former New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray announces She Built NYC in Bryant Park on June 20, 2018, an art program delayed by COVID-19 and now pushed back even more by the Adams administration.

Former New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray announces She Built NYC in Bryant Park on June 20, 2018, an art program delayed by COVID-19 and now pushed back even more by the Adams administration. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The number of monuments honoring women in New York City trails behind that of men, and a city public art program was to begin addressing this disparity until it was delayed by COVID-19. Now, after lifting a pause imposed on such projects during the pandemic, the Adams administration has restarted the effort. 

She Built NYC, founded in 2018 by former New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, set out to install monuments honoring Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn, Billie Holiday in Queens, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera in Manhattan, Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías in the Bronx and Katherine Walker in Staten Island. New Yorkers submitted 2,000 nominations to McCray's team when the program was announced, billed as a way to “make New York the best city in the world for women to succeed,” according to a 2019 press release.

Four years later, little progress has been made on the effort, City & State has learned. The program was initially delayed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite McCray’s announcing the commissioning process on the first statue was completed, that process was actually paused because of the pandemic. With the pause now lifted, the program is starting up again.  “We have been working on a revamped effort to push forward the design, approval and construction of additional monuments more efficiently. We expect to announce details soon and will be engaging key stakeholders as part of that process,” a city Department of Cultural Affairs spokesperson told City & State.

Of the monuments proposed, Chisholm’s was the first to be commissioned and was promised to be installed by the end of 2020. City-approved artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous had planned to build a statue titled "Our Destiny, Our Democracy," to honor Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and to run for president. Funding also was in place. The de Blasio administration was to provide $6.7 million for the program while then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams pledged $2 million. Another $750,000 was to come from now former City Council Member Mathieu Eugene.

Now the commissioning process for the Chisholm monument has restarted. “The city is working with the artists to develop and refine their design,” the spokesperson told City & State, and the city plans to follow up later this year with public presentations of the updated designs. 

Some stakeholders said they have been in the dark about the delay and fear the program has been pushed off for so long that it may not even happen. "It would be the right thing for the city to do to revive the initiative for She Built New York City because it was a very worthy initiative to have statues in New York City that would rectify the imbalance in public art and statues," said Jacob Morris, the head of the Harlem Historical Society and the New York Freedom Trail. Morris is fundraising money to create the Jenning monument and planned to reach out to the Mellon Foundation for support.

Monuments of men historically outnumber those of women, according to a 2021 report put out by the Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio based in Philadelphia, and the Mellon Foundation, a private foundation that donates money towards higher education, museums, the performing arts and conservation.

"We investigated the top 15 individual women in the nation's commemorative landscape, three are European (Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Queen Isabella), and three are saints (Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Kateri Tekakwitha). Feminized bodies often appear in the sanctioned monument ​​landscape as fictional, mythological, and allegorical figures," the report states. "For example, within our study set, there are more recorded monuments depicting mermaids (22) than there are monuments to U.S. congress women (just two: Barbara Jordan of Texas and Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey)."

Even as the program stalled, Manhattan's Community Board 1 voted to locate the Graham monument within its district earlier this year. The board now must gain approval from city agencies that have jurisdiction over four proposed locations for the monument: two places near St. Andrew’s Plaza, the northeast corner of Park Row close to Chatham Green and Wedding Garden Park located at the front of the state Supreme Court on Worth Street.

Jerry Mikorenda, author of the biography “America's First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights,” argues that having a monument of Graham is essential in bringing her important story to life. Graham led the charge of desegregating streetcars and public transportation in New York City in the mid-19th century.

"We're very much a visual society and one of the problems with understanding Elizabeth's story is that there are very few photos of her and her family. In fact, I think there's only one photo of her, so people tend to not pay attention to this story," Mikorenda wrote. "I think [the statute] really brings the story to life for people and in particular for school students who may be studying that time period."

Local artist Jesse Pallotta took matters into their own hands and personally installed a monument to honor Johnson in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village. The site is also located within the Stonewall National Monument, which granted Pallotta an art permit for the temporary installation. Johnson had been a prominent figure during the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, advocating for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, those affected by HIV and AIDS, and gay and transgender rights. The plaster statue has since been relocated to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center just a few blocks away.

Pallotta told City & State that they hoped to see more “dialogue” between the city, grassroots artists and organizers when it comes to the process of memorializing history and monuments. "I think that's what (I) want more than anything."

The other monuments have also found key supporters. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards has been lobbying to have Holiday's monument in Addisleigh Park instead of at Queens Borough Hall. Staten Island’s Community Board 1 also is awaiting word on a memorial for Walker.

In March, Brooklyn Community District 33 had overwhelming support from residents for the Sisters of Freedom Monument during a participatory vote dedicated to taking action against climate change.

The statue would honor Ida B. Wells, an American investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement, Maritcha Lyons, an educator, civic leader, suffragist and public speaker, Sarah Garnet, New York's first Black woman principal, Victoria Earle Matthews the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and Dr. Susan Smith McKinney, the first Black woman doctor in New York.