Monumental discourse: Cemetery leaders setting meeting with neighbors about controversial statue

Monumental discourse: Cemetery leaders setting meeting with neighbors about controversial statue
Associated Press / Bebeto Matthews

They want to bury this controversy once and for all.

The top brass at a local graveyard will meet with critics seething over a plan to adorn the necropolis with a polarizing statue that city officials banished from public display.

A Green-Wood Cemetery rep said its leaders organized the meeting to ensure they are “good neighbors” to residents who blasted them for welcoming the likeness of 19th-century gynecologist J. Marion Sims — who conducted experiments on black female slaves — which the mayor proposed banishing from a Manhattan park as part of the citywide monument review he staged last year after protests over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Va. turned deadly.

The sit-down will be the first time bigwigs at the privately run boneyard directly address the issue with its neighbors, many of whom complained that their opinions weren’t sought in the decision to bring the statue to the bucolic burial ground, according to a civic honcho.

“What I find disconcerting is we weren’t consulted, and I think we should have been,” said Community Board 7 chairman Cesar Zuniga, whose district includes Green-Wood Cemetery.

Members of the city’s Public Design Commission officially signed off on the monument’s move to the graveyard at an April 16 meeting where several people spoke in favor of ousting it from its home in Central Park — but no CB7 members appeared to oppose its transfer to Green-Wood, where it is currently being stored after arriving there later last week.

And two days later, Zuniga put forth a motion urging Green-Wood leaders to reconsider taking the statue at a meeting of his civic panel, but quickly withdrew it after multiple members — including a former chairman — said the board should focus its attention elsewhere.

“We are wasting our time shaking our fists and clucking our tongues at a statue,” said Daniel Murphy.

One former CB7 member, however, accused those who supported the sculpture’s relocation of being a bunch of clueless white guys.

“They were all white men saying these things,” said Malissa del Valle Ortiz, who is black. “It was very offensive, and if you’re not a woman — a woman of color — you don’t know where I’m speaking from.”

Zuniga ultimately told the board’s district manager to reach out to the cemetery after Greenwood Heights Councilman Carlos Menchaca washed his hands of the matter at the meeting, telling attendees a solution must “come from you.”

Graveyard honchos have yet to set a date for the Sims summit with residents, whose opposition to the statue likely won’t die any time soon, according to Zuniga.

“We’ll have a range of conversations, including what can we do to be responsive to women of color who say this is a very historical figure, and we don’t want him in our community,” he said.

Cemetery officials previously vowed to use the effigy as a learning device, promising to display it along with informational material that explains the dastardly medical practices of the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” who himself is buried in one of the site’s roughly 500,000 graves.

But Ortiz said she would rather see the statue destroyed, and its metal reshaped into a new monument honoring women.

“It would be great if they could recycle and repurpose it as a positive image,” she said.

Anyone interested in attending the meeting with Green-Wood Cemetery leaders can contact Community Board 7 at (718) 854–0003 for more information.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.