Residents of Battery Park City are rebelling against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his plans to convert a slice of Rockefeller Park into a memorial to essential workers and the sacrifices they have made during the coronavirus pandemic. Tents are the park that abuts the Hudson River in the northwestern part of the neighborhood. Residents are sitting in trees to keep them from getting cut down. A petition has accumulated more than 5,000 signatures in recent days.
“I just don't think that cutting down any amount of trees or taking away any amount of green space honors essential workers,” Sissel Juul, a local resident who works in COVID-19 testing at a biotech firm, said in an interview. “It isn’t honoring us.”
A spokesperson for the governor says he is sticking to his plans to build the memorial and there are no current plans to forcibly eject the protesters.
Renderings unveiled by Cuomo on June 23 show a “Circle of Heroes” with 20 maple trees representing different types of essential workers. "In the beginning of the pandemic when people were told to stay home, essential workers went into work day after day, making sure their fellow New Yorkers were safe, fed and cared for," he said at the press conference. “We can honor and celebrate them with this monument.” An eternal flame would also be part of the project aimed to be completed by Labor Day on Sept. 6. However, this would mean cutting down existing trees and limiting recreational use, which has provoked the backlash from locals.
Battery Park City may strike some as a curious location for a monument to essential workers. The upper-middle class neighborhood had a relatively low rate of COVID-19 and is not known for hospitals or large numbers of essential workers compared to hard-hit places like Elmhurst, Queens. But Cuomo does not need local permission to build a memorial there because he controls the Battery Park City Authority, which operates independently from city land use rules, through appointments to its leadership.
That has not deterred local residents from waging their fight to stop the project. Their biggest success in recent days has been largely blocking construction and rallying elected officials to the cause. Manhattan legislators Rep. Jerry Nadler, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, Assembly Member Deborah Glick and City Council Member Margaret Chin have all called on the governor to reconsider his plans. “This memorial is the third memorial recent siting located in Battery Park City, with a Hurricane Maria Memorial in 2018 followed by the Mother Cabrini Memorial in fall 2020,” reads a June 18 letter to the governor from Chin. “All three projects have not included any form of public engagement.” Cuomo did give some details about a future memorial in February, but Manhattan Community Board 1 Chair Tammy Meltzer said that a February letter criticizing the project received no response beyond an acknowledgement from gubernatorial staff that it was received.
While the governor is facing criticism from locals and their elected representatives, he has mobilized powerful supporters in support of the project. A litany of labor leaders appeared with Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he unveiled renderings for the memorial at a Manhattan press conference on June 23. This includes the leaders of unions representing people working in sectors like health care, retail, trucking, construction, firefighters, cops, corrections officers, teachers and public servants. “I thank Governor Cuomo for ensuring that their dedication is memorialized and forever remembered in New York,” Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, said in a gubernatorial press release.
Opponents of the planned memorial say that other areas of the city like Elmhurst would make a better location. “Locating a monument in Rockefeller Park will render it largely
inaccessible to many of the workers whom it seeks to honor, and will waste the opportunity to
bring visitors and other resources to a neighborhood that more heavily bore the toll of Covid-19,” reads a June 28 letter to the governor from Nadler, Kavanagh, Glick and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, whose district is near the affected area of the park. The only problem with their suggestion from the governor’s standpoint is a notable lack of state-controlled public authorities in Elmhurst or neighborhoods with similar concentrations of essential workers that suffered severe COVID-19 outbreaks such as Flatbush, Brooklyn. An authority spokesperson could not be reached for comment by publication time for details on a public hearing held last week on the issue.
Leveraging his power over the Battery Park City Authority allows the governor a quick way to install a memorial to essential workers similar to what he did with the Mother Cabrini statue in Battery Park City. Getting that done over the course of a year was a notable contrast to efforts by Cuomo’s rival New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who faced criticism for not including Cabrini (a 19th Century Italian-American Catholic nun who is patron saint of immigrants) on a list of people who would increase gender representation among city statues. The proposed memorial to essential workers would take up just 3,000 square feet in Rockefeller Park, which has a total area of 143,000. Changes to the current design remain possible, according to Cuomo spokesperson Jordan Bennett. “We look forward to working with everyone who uses the public space and to seeing generations of New Yorkers from across the state enjoy this monument,” he said in an email.
The battle over the park appears to have reached a stalemate. Dozens of locals are ready to stay at the park overnight to block any surreptitious efforts to commence construction work with heavy equipment or fence-off the site. Some want to preserve the current grassy space to allow music lessons and family picnics to continue there. Local little leagues are worried about how the memorial might limit playing space for soccer. And it is not just residents of Battery Park City who should be worried, according to Meltzer, the Community Board 1 chair, because a park open to all New Yorkers could become another concrete example of how gubernatorial plans limit local input into public space. “It is not a NIMBY (action),” she said of the growing rebellion against Cuomo’s designs. “You're talking about active recreation space, which there is not enough of in the city, anywhere.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the proximity to Rockefeller Park of the Assembly district represented by Yuh-Line Niou
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