Debate over essential workers monument continues as new plans also face opposition

Local News

BATTERY PARK CITY, Manhattan — Just as they win one battle, residents in Manhattan are gearing up for a new fight.

During a Community Board 1 meeting Wednesday night, it was announced Gov. Andrew Cuomo is backing off his original proposal to erect a monument honoring essential workers at Rockefeller Park. 

Cuomo faced backlash from the Battery Park City community, who were against trees being removed and green space being taken away in their beloved park. That’s a park frequented by families with young children as well as sports leagues. They also were outraged they were not consulted and that there have been no environmental, wildlife or traffic impact studies.  

Less than two weeks of intense grassroots effort has paid off.  

“It’s not going to be in Rockefeller Park, not even in a section of Rockefeller Park,” said George Tsunis, chair of the Battery Park City Authority. “It will be moving I heard the community loud and clear.”

But during and since that CB1 meeting, which lasted more than five hours, Tsunis is also hearing loud and clear the two new proposed locations are wrought with challenges and opposition.

Kelly Anne Reynolds is a lifelong Battery Park City resident as well as a historian.

“They’re just copying and pasting one plan to a new location, that doesn’t work, it’s a different space, a different size,” said Reynolds. “You can’t just say, ‘we take the 19 trees there and move them here.’”

The governor’s office released renderings of the monument – called the “Circle of Heroes,” featuring an enteral flame surrounded by 19 red maple trees, each representing a different type of essential worker during the pandemic. Cuomo says the location was chosen by a board – but residents here say not one member of their community is on that board.

The first newly proposed location is an area just south of North Cove Marina – an area called Esplanade Plaza where residents fear the volleyball court will need to be removed.

The second option is now the area adjacent to the Irish Hunger Memorial.  

Fergal Walsh is from Ireland but has lived in Battery Park City for nearly two decades.

“It’s a memorial to the Irish famine back in the 1800s, where over one million died and close to another million emigrated to avoid starvation, many of whom died on the journey, it’s a memorial to them in their suffering,” said Walsh. “It represents more than just Ireland and Irish hunger, it also represents world hunger that takes nine million people every year.”

But it’s also important to the still vibrant Irish community in New York for other reasons.

“It also represents the immigration of the Irish like my ancestors to New York to Boston, and what those immigrants set out to accomplish, to have a better life,” said Reynolds. “If you look at the quotes around the memorial, you have letters from people discussing what was going on during the famine and quotes from newspapers, really tragic things.”

Both Walsh and Reynolds feel it’s important to honor our essential workers but say the sanctity of the memorial should be reserved.

“Why the rush? Why not take time to find a site if this happens to be the site then great, but let’s put a design in there that would be complementary with the famine memorial,” said Walsh. “Ideally let’s move it away from this beautiful memorial that represents world hunger and give it in a place of its own.”

Cuomo has been intent on the Circle of Heroes monument being finished by Labor Day.

Critics are also concerned about the environmental impact of a carbon-fueled flame.

“The eternal flame doesn’t make sense — it’s a risk, it’s dangerous, I worry about terrorism,” said Reynolds.  “Why are we going to put a gas bomb waiting to happen?”

Thursday night, U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler also tweeted about this issue.

“Desecrating the Irish Hunger Memorial is a bad idea,” he said. “Tearing up a heavily used volleyball court is a bad idea. Paving a park is a bad idea. We need a public, thoughtful process to design a monument that reflects the value of our brave essential workers.”

For Walsh, he just wants the community to be heard.

“The community doesn’t seem to have the appropriate voice in decision making,” said Walsh. “We live here and the community deserves respect and sensitivity when it comes to decisions.”

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