Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Civic Virtue At Stake In Queens
The Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger features "Civic Virtue Is Lost To Queens?" by Michael Perlman:
Queens is about to suffer the historic loss of a prominent public work of art, an unofficial landmark, and the meaning of civic virtue.
On November 13, the NYC Design Commission approved a move of the Triumph of Civic Virtue, a statue situated west of Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. A public statue is slated to undergo a move to a privately owned cemetery on “long-term loan,” according to published reports. This decision was quietly made by the city, without the Queens community having any say in the process.
Civic Virtue kept an eye on passersby at the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike since 1941. After decades of neglect by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), Civic Virtue is not only corroding from the elements and physical abuse, but the city enclosed it with a jail-like fence in summer 2012, barring public interaction.
On July 17, the Daily News broke the news of a "secret plan” to transport it to the Brooklyn cemetery, in which DCAS was negotiating its future.
Much of the present controversy was ignited in February 2011, when former Congressman Anthony Weiner and Councilwoman Julia Ferreras staged a press conference at the statue. Weiner called Civic Virtue “sexist” and “anti-woman.” He then addressed a letter to DCAS calling for its removal from Queens.
In 2007, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall told the New York Times, “Vice is portrayed in the form of a woman. I have no enthusiasm for restoring the Civic Virtue statue.”
Green-Wood Cemetery has now pledged to finance Civic Virtue’s restoration, but ironically, history would be fragmented as the statue would be detached from its foundational Angelina Crane fountain; the latter of which would remain in Queens.
On November 26, 2012, Marshall’s spokesman, Dan Andrews, told the Times that the borough president hopes to restore the fountain and create a place paying tribute to women in history.
Since when is Civic Virtue sexist? An artist's vision is bound for misinterpretation, and Civic Virtue is often devalued through political debate. It depicts a muscular nude Hercules who stands over, but not atop, two mermaid-like sirens, which allegorically represent Vice and Corruption. It denounces societal wrongdoings, which some politicians cannot bear as they pass the statue en route to Queens Borough Hall.
Four omni-directional dolphin-head sprouts surround a fountain at its base. An inscription reads “This Fountain Was Erected By The City Of New York With Funds Bequeathed By Mrs. Angelina Crane.” Also engraved is “Mac Monnies 1920.”
The Classical 22-foot stone-and-White Georgia marble sculpture was designed in 1920 by the last major American Beaux Art sculptor, Frederick William MacMonnies, and was carved and placed by the Piccirilli Brothers. Thomas Hastings was the architect.
In 1922, Civic Virtue watched park-goers in City Hall Park. When some misinterpreted the statue as anti-women, it earned the nicknames “Tough Guy” and “Fat Boy.” On May 29, 1941, the 24-ton statue was transported to Kew Gardens, after Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia despised eyeing the statue’s backside from his City Hall window.
On October 7, 1941, Queens Borough President George Harvey stated, “For 12 years, Queens has really had civic virtue, but has never been able to prove it. We can now!” There were 50 invited guests including Adolph Weimann and A.F. Brinkerhoff of the National Sculptors Society, as well as 200 cheering onlookers.
Fast forward 71 years, Queens residents are now calling for an immediate halt of its slated transport to Brooklyn, and seek answers. Jon Torodash, a 30-year-old resident of Forest Hills/Kew Gardens founded TriumphofCivicVirtue.org, an advocacy group aimed to preserve Civic Virtue where it sits in Queens, and acquire funding for its restoration. Through social media, it sparked the interest of over 100 supporters and continues to grow.
Upon learning about Civic Virtue’s politically related endangerment, Torodash’s immediate response was “righteously indignant.”
“A sense of civic virtue motivated me,” he said. “The statue is a Neo-Classical interpretation of an American idea; namely the importance of open and honest government. The urge to move it reflects a person’s uneasiness with his or her own corruption.
“DCAS and the Design Commission have a mandate to preserve public art residing on public grounds,” Torodash added. “It is their obligation to Queens residents who pay their share of taxes.”
According to the Design Commission’s online bulletin, the public is “encouraged to submit their testimony in writing at least 3 business days in advance of the meeting date.” For Civic Virtue, TriumphofCivicVirtue.org noted, “The Design Commission’s public hearing was held on Tuesday, November 13, but the public bulletin about the hearing was not finalized online until Friday, November 9 at 9:48 PM, which is not 3 business days.”
As for the group’s next course, “Triumphofcivicvirtue.org will be investigating the Design Commission’s public hearing procedure,” said Torodash.
“Many of us emigrated to the USA precisely because it’s not like the corrupt 'Old World,’ so how the hell does something so nefarious get pulled off in the free world?” asked Architect Ivan Mrakovcic, president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society.
“I want a full accounting of who is responsible for this blatant attempt of theft of our public art,” he continued. “The only heads that need to roll are the duplicitous staff of DCAS, and whoever they answered to. Community Board 9 was ignored too.”
John Scandalios, a 2013 candidate for City Council, pointed fingers at ex-Congressman Weiner for being a major cause of the Civic Virtue debate.
“It is more than odd that a U.S. Congressman, who resigned his office following the media reporting his lewd behavior, found such an important piece of New York City art history so objectionable, that he attempted to sell this statue on Craigslist without having authority,” he said.
“Would people like to have pieces of art history such as the statue of David or Venus de Milo banished to cemeteries, just because some elected officials find it tasteless and offensive?” Scandalios asked. “Which elected official will stand up now for what's right, and undo the wrong of a past shamed elected official?”
Councilman Peter Vallone answered Scandalios’ plea.
“I am looking into the legality of the Design Commission’s hearing, and I want to see if their notice was sufficient,” he said. “Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, they sent out a mass email with items being considered for the entire city. Many people had their email down at that time, including City Council. Not one citizen I know of testified, and I first found out about the hearing through the New York Times blog, after it took place.
“If Civic Virtue was against women, I wouldn’t stand for it as a father of two daughters,” said Vallone. “If you oppose this statue, then you have to oppose Perseus holding the head of Medusa. This is a complete misunderstanding of Greek mythology, and Civic Virtue should be restored right where it is.”
A rally to spare Civic Virtue for Queens’ sake of civic virtue is planned among community representatives later in the week. “We are always looking for volunteers, and supporting their own ideas as to how,” Torodash stated.
Stay tuned for updates on www.TriumphOfCivicVirtue.org.