public art

Our Memorials Teach Us to Forget

The monument to the Strauses, installed on upper Broadway three years after they died aboard the Titanic. Photo: Richard Levine/Alamy

There are more than 1,000 monuments and memorials scattered around New York, with at least five more on the way. The de Blasio administration is starting to address the oversupply of males on pedestals by commissioning five statues of women (one per borough). And the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved a tastefully unobtrusive memorial to a brutal inferno, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, almost all of them women. This city has a lot to remember.

And yet all those statues, plaques, commemorative fountains, and abstract sculptures can never match the awesome ability to forget. Parks and squares are littered with markers that failed at their only job: to keep their topics from falling into oblivion. You may have paused a thousand times at the feet of that mounted king with the two swords crossed above his head in Central Park, but would you be able to pick Jagiello out of a lineup or recite a single fact about his exploits at the Battle of Grunwald? Have regular glimpses of the sugar-white Lorelei Fountain near the Bronx County Courthouse ever nudged you to open a volume by the poet it honors, Heinrich Heine? And how well do you recall the bright June morning in 1904 when 2,500 women and children from the Lower East Side’s German community, Kleindeutschland, boarded an East River excursion boat, the General Slocum? When a fire broke out belowdecks and roared out of control, witnesses on both banks of the river saw what a reporter described as “a spectacle of horror beyond words to express — a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in waves.” More than 1,000 people were lost in the most lethal disaster to hit New York until September 11, 2001 — their deaths memorialized by an easily overlooked fountain in Tompkins Square Park.

You might think that a more imposing monument would keep a major cataclysm in the public eye. That was part of the justification for cordoning off such a great swath of lower Manhattan as the 9/11 Memorial. Decades from now, anyone who looks down into those two vast unconsoling pools will demand to know what fell into them — or so we can hope. In a future-focused society, amnesia is relentless and all-consuming. Studying history in college is considered passé, a stunningly self-fulfilling attitude.

Monuments are supposed to guard against Lethe, but eventually, even stone starts to crumble, literalizing the brittleness of human memory. In 1882, when the Civil War was still a painful gash in the lives of millions, veterans held a fundraiser in Madison Square Garden to drum up support for a monument to the Union dead. “The exercises consisted of athletic sports, a donkey-race, an exhibition drill … followed in the evening by dancing,” the Times reported. It took another 20 years of relentless lobbying, arm-twisting, shaming, and arguing for the veterans to get the recognition they craved. But when the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, a cylindrical temple designed by Stoughton & Stoughton, was finally dedicated on Riverside Drive at 89th Street in 1902, it became an instant landmark, the subject of postcards and photographs, and the pride of real estate developers who saw it as a neighborhood jewel. It soon began falling apart, and the danger of falling masonry means that few have stepped inside for many years. The Times’ David Dunlap did in 2015, and he saw a soaring marble atrium that “culminates in a great dome, ornamented with green mosaic palm fronds and topped by an oculus through which one can see a cupola of polished marble that sparkles like a celestial, faceted jewel.”

Today, the monument is a quasi-ruin behind a chain-link fence. Decades of freezing and thawing have pried marble slabs from their anchors, knocked stairs out of whack, corroded bronze doors, and opened weed-filled cracks. Two years ago, the city commissioned a report on its structural health, and the estimate for a restoration came to $30 million. The Parks Department says only that it is “seeking funding,” though perhaps without much sense of urgency. The nonprofit Riverside Park Conservancy has the monument on a wish list of major repairs, below an equally costly drainage issue that leaves much of the park looking like a crocodile habitat after even a modest rain. It should be an embarrassment that a magnificent memorial to the fighters who kept the nation intact will continue to crumble indefinitely so long as nobody cares enough to come up with the cash to stop the decay. But there are always new needs and urgent priorities. Shame is negotiable. Memory can wait.

How much attention should a memorial claim, anyway? How much steel, stone, square footage, labor, and money are required to ensure that we remember a military victory or a slew of early deaths? A related question: How long is a monument’s term of service? Can we reasonably expect a statue or an obelisk to keep doing its mnemonic job when new tragedies supersede old ones and heroes are revealed to be depraved, or merely human?

A few of these conundrums came before the Landmarks Preservation Commission last month, when it considered adding a Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Memorial to the exterior of the building where the disaster took place. It’s a sign of our contemporary ambivalence toward memorials that the design, by Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo was so self-effacing as to be practically invisible: a thin ribbon of textured metal running vertically along one corner of the building (which is now part of NYU), and a chest-high stainless-steel ledge bearing the victims’ names. The LPC determined that the design would neither obscure any architectural features nor detract from the building’s character, and that it could, if necessary, be undone. And yet the panel also found that even such a light-touch intervention would highlight the “cultural significance” of the former deathtrap. In other words, the planned memorial will attract just enough attention, but not so much that you’d notice.

In theory, we use monuments to preserve the past, correct the present, and instruct the future. New York’s five future statues of women — Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Billie Holiday, civil-rights activist Elizabeth Jennings Graham, public-health advocate Helen Rodríguez Trías, and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker — figure in today’s ongoing struggles over gender and race, the same struggles that have lately been toppling statues of Confederate leaders. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the war over how to interpret history is the continuation of politics by other means.

We can’t dictate whether future generations will smash our graven images or, more likely, just ignore them. But every once in a while, some random fragment of the city’s memorial bric-a-brac pops into our daily lives, making the past fleetingly vivid. Several times a week, I walk through the intersection of Broadway at West 106th Street, where a fountain — a bronze nymph reclining on a granite wall — presides over a serene triangular parklet. A carved inscription reads: “In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus, who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912. Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not divided.” Whenever I walk by, I think for a moment about the Strauses — how they must have spent their final moments reaching for each other and gasping for air, but finding only frigid water, and how their awful deaths bequeathed a spot that is so lovely and pleasant in my life.

Our Memorials Teach Us to Forget