Meeting Minutes – April 12, 2021

City of Syracuse Heritage Park Advisory Commission

 Meeting Minutes

April 12, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom and was called to order at 3:05 pm by The Honorable Ben Walsh, Mayor.

Introduction. Mayor Ben Walsh began the meeting by thanking Commission members for volunteering their time to help their city heal and grow.  Recognizing the difficulty of the assignment, the Mayor expressed his wish for the newly imagined Circle to be an inclusive space that the community is proud of.  Mayor Walsh explained how the Commission is made up of community members, a project management team, and City of Syracuse staff.  The chance was then given for Commission members to introduce themselves.

Before commencing the discussion of the current status of the project, Mayor Walsh told the commission he hopes Syracuse can be a model on how to deal with such a difficult subject using a collaborative process.  While the project will surely be difficult and demanding, it will ultimately put the City on a path towards healing.

The Process. A Commission Member (CM)began by explaining that this issue has been a concern for decades.  In October of 2020, it was announced the statue of Christopher Columbus would be removed, along with the bronze heads depicting indigenous people and bas relief plaques, to be moved to a private site.  The city has recognized the history the statue was meant to honor, and has ensured the community that the space will continue to honor the Italian-American people of Syracuse.

The CM explained a Covenant from the 1990’s that stated the City of Syracuse would need to work through the State Office of Historic Preservation if they wished to remove or amend the statue.  This Covenant is no longer in place, meaning this is not a necessary process step.  It was explained that the Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board and the Syracuse Public Art Commission will need to review and approve plans suggested by this Commission.  Although there is no strict timeline in place, City officials recognize the natural urgency created by the impending celebration of Indigenous Peoples/Columbus Day on October 11, 2021.  The CM stressed the need to take care of this issue correctly and in good faith, rather than quickly.

Commission members were told that resource planning and funding are ongoing, and that this Commission will help for a resource plan.  The City of Syracuse has received a Notice of Claim from the Columbus Monument Corporation, meaning they reserve the right to take legal action, but have not, as of yet, done so.  Regarding the timeline, A CM asserted the Commission must keep moving forward, and ideally there will be a plan to implement at the end of the process.

Summary Statement, Purpose, and Recommendations.  A CM briefly reviewed how the City of Syracuse came to this point regarding the Christopher Columbus monument.  The CM reinforced the idea that this Commission is meant to focus on the narrative and content of the reimagined site.  The work already done by similar commissions and committees was acknowledged, as the CM sees the dialogue they facilitated as a roadmap for what the community wants and needs for this site.  Reiterating the purpose of this Commission, the CM stated this group is meant to represent stakeholders while bringing their expertise to this project, which involves creating a space that celebrates the heritage of everyone in Syracuse, while acknowledging and reckoning with the oppression of groups throughout the city’s history.  The Commission, at the end of this process, will make detailed recommendations to a design team, and is not responsible for discussing the destination of the statue.  

Special attention will be paid to how the Haudenosaunee, the First People of this area, are honored, while being inclusive to the oppression of all groups of people.  Ideally, the site will contain featured artwork, educational content, natural beauty, and a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere.  The newly imagined space should help in the healing process while recognizing local history; removal of the statue does not constitute historical erasure.  The space will be used for education, play, rest, reflection, and entertainment.   As detailed in the Common Ground Recommendations from the Action Committee, a CM informed the Commission that it was recommended that the statue be removed, with the remaining monument being modified, and the Powelson site (adjacent to Columbus Circle) being used in some way.

Another CM asserted their wish to see an indoor component utilized, potentially in a city owned property adjacent to the Circle.  A separate CM reminded Commission members of the interrelatedness of history in the Circle, which includes ties to the Underground Railroad.

Plans Going Forward.  Before allowing a CM to facilitate the last part of the session, the challenge of “design by committee” was acknowledged, with the CM reiterating the idea that the Commission needs to form a unified vision for the area, rather than come to complete agreement on a design.  Important questions are: What is important for designers to know?  What is important to stakeholders?  What values do we want covered?

A CM inquired as to whether the space would be used for events as it has been used in the past, voicing their opinion that such a space could be ideal for bringing together and celebrating different groups of people.  That CM also talked about the idea of the space being a “living exhibit” that allows for additions to be made in the future.  This idea was supported by a different CM, who envisions the Haudenosaunee concept of Thanksgiving featuring prominently.

A CM asked about the underground environs of the Circle, and whether it could be accessed and used.  Another CM informed members that the monument was renovated in 1992, with the area directly underground being accessed and used to house the fountain apparatus.  It is unclear if the underground area connects with any other areas of Downtown Syracuse.

A CM mentioned the possibility of honoring an Italian woman rather than a man if a new statue is to be featured, though they look forward to hearing and learning from Haudenosaunee voices throughout this process.  They mentioned the need for the space to allow for healing and reflection, supported by other CM’s wishes for an aesthetically pleasing space that fosters an environment conducive to the reckoning of oppression.  Central to the space should be a sense of equality and a striving towards civic understanding.

When asked by a CM whether there are any major limitations to keep in mind, they were informed that as of now there are none.  Clarifying their duty, as well as the duties of Commission members, a CM asked the commission to think about how they can engage with the community to get input.  The CM recognized the work done already by Interfaith Works and Neighbors of Onondaga Nation (NOON).

Summarizing the focus of the Commission, a CM asserted that content and narrative inform design.  The Commission must focus on developing content that acknowledges oppression and celebrates contributions of different groups.

A CM voiced their concern over what will be in place of the statue in the interim period after it is taken down, but before the new site is in place.  A CM acknowledged that there is no plan in place and thanked the other CM for their consideration.  That CM suggested an acknowledgement of Onondaga Nation and the Haudenosaunee, while another CM mentioned installing something that would prepare the community for what is coming next and get people excited.  Another CM praised the use of deliberative democracy in decision making, stating their wish for this process to be well documented.

A CM asserted that there should be a focus on simplicity, noting that the educational component can extend beyond the immediate area of the Circle.  Another CM supported this argument for simplicity, citing their work on a collaborative mural on Grant Blvd.  Another CM argued for this as well, mentioning the need to formulate a “one sentence takeaway”.  They then listed words and ideas mentioned by other members that stuck with them, including mosaic, healing, simplicity.  The CM also mentioned the use of spiral imagery in other monuments, that is meant to symbolize battle fatigue.

A CM mentioned the inappropriateness of treating oppression in our communities as “one size fits all”, highlighting the need to recognize, acknowledge, and reckon with different forms of oppression over different people.  They argued the idea that there can only be celebration after accountability.

Moving forward, A CM mentioned the need to meet individually with stakeholders and Commission members.  

A CM thanked members for attending and for committing to learning and facilitating dialogues.  The meeting was called to a close at 4:58 pm.

These minutes respectfully submitted to the Columbus Circle Commission.

Chris Melfi

Support Services Administrator-Onondaga Historical Association