'I'm Here For the Trees': Fight to Save Some Green in Rockefeller Park

Matthew Stahmer, 13, stands outside the tent that his family pitched Monday night in Rockefeller Park where work had been set to begin on a monument to essential workers. "We believe they're trying to build a perimeter fence around the area so it could be tonight, it could be tomorrow morning, it could be the next day," he said. "We have no clue, but we just don't want it to happen without us being here to stop it." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 25, 2021

Update 6/30/21: Following protests over Gov. Cuomo's chosen site in Rockefeller Park for the Essential Workers Monument, the Battery Park City Authority announced today it will discuss the location with stakeholders, including community members. In a statement, Authority Chairman George Tsunis said: "Over the next week the Battery Park City Authority will continue to engage with our neighbors, representatives of essential workers and the Governor's office to discuss the monument in Battery Park City to ensure that it is one that is optimal for the entire community." The Authority said planned construction will be "paused" through the coming holiday weekend.

It was like any lazy summer day in Battery Park City’s Rockefeller Park as local residents spread blankets and lounged while kids scampered through the grass. An ordinary day, that is, except for the looming prospect of arrest. 

Dozens of the protesters, outraged by Gov. Cuomo’s recently announced plan to turn a section of the park into a 10,000-square-foot Monument to Essential Workers, casually stepped over a low orange fence and into the off-limits work zone at 7 a.m. Monday morning. There they relaxed beneath the six shade trees that workers were about to cut down. 

Police stood by, but at a distance.

It was an act of civil disobedience that by the end of the day won the residents at least a temporary victory. Plans to fortify the space with a stronger fence—with no protesters inside—would not go forward that evening as planned.

“We’re still going to need folks here tomorrow in case they come back and put up a bigger, metal fence,” Eric Gyasi, a protest leader, announced to the crowd. “But for right now this orange fence is coming down. All you guys give yourselves a round of applause!”

Gyasi punctuated the cheers with a plea to bombard George Tsunis, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, with emails and tweets urging a change of heart. “He’s the one who allowed this project to go forward,” Gyasi said.

Monday evening a few families pitched tents, againt Battery Park City rules, and maintained the vigil through the night. In the morning, Greg Sheindlin held his drowsy 8-year-old daughter Daniella while Jessica, 6, slept soundly in their tent.

They wanted us to take down the tents but after a little while they said, you know what, leave them up for the night,” Sheindlin said he was told by a Battery Park City Authority representative. “They viewed it as a protest and First Amendment issue.

The protest has gained the support of local elected officials, including State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, Assemblywomen Yuh-Line Niou and Deborah Glick, and Rep. Jerry Nadler. In a letter, Councilwoman Margaret Chin told Cuomo, “I strongly urge you to order construction to stop until there has been proper process of community engagement with local residents and elected officials.

In a statement, Jordan Bennett, a Cuomo spokesman, said, “We’re proud to be planting 19 trees for a life-affirming monument in a destination park made for all New Yorkers to enjoy, in the shadow of the symbol of New York’s resilience and openness. This location was chosen in an open process by 23 leaders representing hundreds of thousands of essential workers, and the site design allows for people to continue to enjoy the park space.”

A spokesman for the Battery Park City Authority declined to comment.

The $3 million Circle of Heroes,” 19 new maple trees encircling curved benches, with an “eternal flame” and two flag poles at the center, will be built on about one-quarter of an acre on the southernmost portion of the park’s north lawn. It is due to be completed by Labor Day. In announcing the project last Wednesday, Cuomo said the monument “will stand forever as a tribute to all that [the workers] have done for New York in our greatest moment of need and beyond.” 

One of those many being honored, Rafael Torres, a physician who ran the emergency department at White Plains Hospital at the height of the pandemic, said like many of the other protesters he favors a monument for the essential workers. “But what I’m also for is pausing and having a discussion about the size and scope of  it, and the loss of green space,” said Torres, a Battery Park City resident and father of three. 

According to the Governor’s Office, 3,000 square feet of “hardscape,” including paths, benches, and flag pole area, will occupy 2% of the current lawn. The trees, according to the Governor’s Office, are “overgrown,” a notion highly disputed by local residents.

“There’s nothing better than a mature tree and green grass,” said Mary McGowan, whose first act inside the space was to spread her arms around a couple of trunks. “I’m here for the trees,” she added. “These are living things.” 

“This part of the park is the shadiest part of the park,” said Judi Beecher, who noted she often comes to this area to work. The larger lawn, she said, has little shade. “Here, there are these big beautiful trees that you can sit under.

As of July 1, an online petition had gathered more than 7,300 signatures.

In a February resolution, Community Board 1 opposed an essential workers monument in Battery Park City (yet to be sited at the time), calling on the state to consider other communities in the city “that were more deeply affected” by the pandemic.

Cuomo has the authority to site projects in Battery Park City because it is state-owned land. Along with his choice of the neighborhood for the Essential Workers Monument, he selected Battery Park City for two other monuments, the Hurricane Maria Memorial and Mother Cabrini statue, both dedicated last year.

Comments? Write to editor@tribecatrib.com



How many memorials can a neighborhood endure?

I have often referred to BPC as the “city of memorials.” How many can one neighborhood endure? The WTC, Irish Potato Famine, Holocaust Museum, Skyscraper Museum, Korean War, and others not far (Vietname Memorial).

Give us a break!

Also, I am deeply offended by devoting a piece of NY History (Battery Park City) to a yet-to-be-defined class known as “essential workers.” While I am in awe of many hospital workers, nurses and doctors, there are many others who might fit that category. Is the cashier at Gristedes or Duane Reade less essential? This proposed memorial is a gift to the purveyors of “woke-ism.”

My suggestion is to put it where Teddy Roosevelt’s statue was removed from the museum uptown.



The site lacks good transportation and needed facilities

Your article covered the issues the community has about the ill-conceived plan. One more point. A “destination” monument should have convenient transportation and other facilities nearby (eating, restrooms, etc). At this location, there are none. No bus lines, subways far away and no restaurants.



Trees and grass make Lower Manhattan safer and healthier

Public parks are critical for the physical and mental health of all New Yorkers. We have dangerous levels of heat and humidity. These trees and grass are critical for combating the heat island effect and making lower Manhattan safer and healthier for all.

RAELI SAVITT (via YouTube comments)