All photos by the author.
In the shadow of One World Trade Center at the edge of Battery Park City sits Rockefeller Park. Adjacent to the Hudson River and with the New Jersey skyline in the distance is a shady green space within the park. It’s littered with trees on which hand drawn signs— many of which were illustrated by children — read “save our trees”, and “please don’t take our park”.
The signs refer to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to cut down long-standing trees and pave over the grass space to install the “Circle of Heroes” monument to essential workers of the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal was met with fierce backlash. Community members complain they were blindsided by Cuomo’s $3 million plan.
“Cuomo has sprung on the community a couple of days ago that they wanted to make a section of the park, this large section of the park, a memorial for essential workers.” says Battery Park City resident Judi Beecher.
Renderings of the construction plans include a concrete roundabout, surrounded by grass on which new red oak trees will be planted. An “eternal flame” — symbolic of the state’s enduring gratitude to frontline workers — will be placed at the centerpoint of the roundabout. Beecher is concerned about several of the proposals’ features, namely the flame.
“It’s dangerous as well. I talked to the Fire Department and if the flame blows out then you have gas in the area” Beecher told The Indypendent.
Beecher, like many residents, says the desire to honor the front liners is laudable, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of one of the only shady landscapes in the area. She added that local residents had formed a tenant association on Monday to put up an organized fight.
‘#Pause the saws’ one sign read, and that’s exactly what happened late Monday night into early Tuesday morning. Residents camped out, successfully stopping bulldozers from tearing down trees which was supposed to be the first step in the memorial’s installation.
“Our strategy right now is trying to buy as much time as we can, and I’m thankful my neighbors were able to spend the night here and protect the grass,” Battery Park City resident Mary Ghicas said on Tuesday. She, like others, had been at the greenspace all morning, stalling the bulldozers.
The protesters have the backing of prominent Lower Manhattan politicians including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Assemblywomen Yuh-Line Niou and Deborah Glick and leading District 1 City Council candidates Christopher Marte and Jenny Lam Low.
“New York’s essential workers deserve our honor and respect—and we can commemorate them with a memorial,” Nadler tweeted. “But bulldozing vital open space in lower Manhattan isn’t the way to do it.”
The grassy area overlooking the Hudson is also dear to the elderly in the area. Ghicas said that patients at the nearby Brookdale Battery Park City nursing home often come out onto the shady green space to get some fresh air.
Emma, 74, doesn’t live at the nursing home but enjoys the greenspace along with her husband who is 81. She says it provides safety, security and enjoyment for young and old alike.
“We can’t sit on the grass, because we wouldn’t be able to get up but by passing it, we’re just so happy that young families can use it” she said.
Ana Lala says the park is invaluable for the community’s children including her own. “This green space is a really important part of my kids’ childhood,” she said. “They come out here several times a week to have birthday parties, to play soccer, to do running clubs, to climb trees.”
Battery Park City was built in the 1970s from fill excavated in part from the nearby World Trade Center construction site. Because it sits on state land, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appoints members to the board of the Battery Park City Authority which runs the area and serves as a rubber stamp for the governor. In recent years, Battery Park City has become something of a dumping ground for memorials favored by the governor that have little or no relation to the surrounding area — first a memorial to Hurricane Maria survivors (2018) and then one to Mother Cabrini (2020). By using the state-owned land at Battery Park City, Cuomo avoids having to collaborate with his arch-nemesis Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Battery Park City resident Kelly McGowan said the shock of seeing construction fences go up Saturday spurred her and others to pitch their tents and camp out overnight in defense of the park.
“The Authority has a reputation, they’ve done this in the past, where they placate you during the day and they cut the trees at night,” McGowan said.
In recent years, Battery Park City has become something of a dumping ground for memorials favored by the governor that have little or no relation to the surrounding area.
The essential workers memorial, as envisioned, would have red oak trees which will take decades to fully mature. However, the red oaks would be a poor choice for this piece of land, McGowan said.
“Red oak trees need acidic soil, this is alkaline soil, so they won’t even thrive here,” McGowan said.
In response to the community blowback, the New York Post reports that Cuomo has agreed to move the essential workers memorial to the corner of Rockefeller Park.
“This [park] is a rare jewel of New York and it took 30 years to build it. It’s just a crime to just throw it away for an ego trip” McGowan said. “It doesn’t honor anybody. Every essential worker we’ve spoken to here in the neighborhood says ‘this doesn’t honor me, I don’t want this.’ “
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