Mayor Adams To Resume Paused Project Honoring NYC Women With Monuments

March 28, 2024

NYC Mayor Eric Adams and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) Commissioner Laurie Cumbo today announced the revival of the building of monuments honoring women influential in the city’s history. 

In 2018, She Built NYC was launched to address the underrepresentation of women in the city’s public art collection by commissioning five public monuments — one for each borough — to honor women and women’s history in New York City.  

The Adams administration announced a major milestone on the first of the five projects — honoring Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park — in July 2023, when it received unanimous approval from the city’s Public Design Commission. The other four projects were initially announced in March 2019, but stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in and never even got to the initial phase of planning. Thanks to the Adams administration, these four remaining projects are now being restarted, and an open call is being launched for artists to design them. She Built NYC will honor Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías in the Bronx, Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan, Billie Holiday in Queens, and Katherine Walker in Staten Island.  

“As we close out Women’s History Month, we remember that every day is an opportunity to celebrate the women who have led and built New York City into the greatest city in the world,” said Mayor Adams. “These extraordinary women saved lives, challenged racial and gender barriers, and overcame all odds to become leaders in each of their respective fields. Today, I’m proud that their legacy will forever be enshrined through public monuments across the five boroughs — open to all New Yorkers to see, learn, and understand their impact on our city.” 

“Women built this city into the vibrant, extraordinary place it is today, and it’s far past time that the contributions of our forebears are celebrated and given their rightful place in our public realm,” said Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development, and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer. “Symbolic progress like this goes hand-in-hand with real accomplishments, and I’m proud of this administration for launching Women Forward NYC to fight for women’s economic mobility, provide holistic services for women, and give women self-determination over their health and their lives. Today’s announcement marks another step toward a better, fairer city for women and all New Yorkers.” 

“Public art is how we show the world who we are and what we value, and I’m overjoyed to get these exciting projects honoring extraordinary women from New York history back underway,” said DCLA Commissioner Cumbo. “As Women’s HERstory Month draws to a close, this is one critical way we can continue to build on the hard-won rights and recognition that our predecessors fought so hard for. In every borough, from pioneering doctors and artists to advocates and selfless public servants, we are committed to recognizing these achievements, while bringing incredible, dynamic public artworks to our city’s open spaces.” 

Across New York City’s nearly 150 public monuments honoring historical figures, only eight are women. Under the Adams administration, DCLA worked across city agencies and with community partners to identify new locations tied to the women being honored for the four stalled projects announced today and are recruiting artists to design these new monuments. The monuments will be commissioned through DCLA’s “Percent for Art,” a city program where 1 percent of the agency’s budget is spent on public art. Artists can review full instructions for open calls on the artist submission website. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis.  

The women being honored in this round of new monuments are:  

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías (1929-2001) – Bronx  

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías was a pioneer in reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS care and prevention. Dr. Rodríguez Trías’ work often advocated on behalf of women and children, especially those in poor and minority communities. She became the medical director of the New York state Department of Health’s AIDS Institute and the first Latinx director of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Rodríguez Trías was a recipient of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV/AIDS, and the poor. Among her greatest legacies are shaping regulations that govern informed content for sterilizations and empowering low-income and minority women through the women’s health movement. 

The Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías Monument will be built in a public-facing area at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, where she was the head of the hospital’s pediatrics department and advocated for better medical care for the communities of color that the institution served. 

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827–1901) – Manhattan  

Elizabeth Jennings Graham challenged racial segregation a century before the modern civil rights movement. On July 16, 1854, the 24-year-old schoolteacher boarded a streetcar at the intersection of Pearl and Chatham Streets, on what is now Park Row, that did not accept African Americans as passengers. When the conductor confronted her, she refused to leave until forcibly removed by the police. The city’s African American community was outraged by the incident, and Graham sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company, the conductor, and the driver. The judge ruled in her favor, holding that “a colored person…had the same rights as others.” In addition to winning $225 in damages, Jennings’ case took the first step toward ending transit segregation in New York City. By 1860, all of the city’s streetcar lines were open to African Americans because of her efforts. In her later years, Jennings continued to teach, helping to start the first kindergarten in the city for Black children. 

The Elizabeth Jennings Graham Monument will be built near the route of the streetcar journey on which she made her courageous stand. 

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) – Queens  

Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, “Billie” Holiday is one of the most celebrated jazz singers of all time. Her career helped to define New York as the emerging jazz scene, and she challenged racial barriers, becoming the first Black women to sing with a white orchestra. Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” — a powerful protest song about lynching — was named by Time Magazine as “the song of the century.” Her career was recognized with a dozen Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

The Billie Holiday Monument will be built at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, near the clubs she performed in and the neighborhood she called home. 

Katherine Walker (1838-1931) – Staten Island  

Katherine Walker was the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse in Staten Island for 35 years. She is credited with saving the lives of at least 50 people and maintaining the light that guided countless ships to safe passage through Kill Van Kull, the shipping channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. One of the few female lighthouse keepers in U.S. history, she broke barriers in a male-dominated field and raised her two children at the lighthouse, rowing them back and forth to attend school on Staten Island. Walker’s story sheds light on the largely untold history of women working in New York City’s maritime industry.  

The Katherine Walker Monument will be included in the ongoing development planned for Staten Island’s North Shore being spearheaded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.  

A monument honoring LGBTQ+ activists and pioneers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in Manhattan was announced subsequent to the four monuments being restarted today; plans and next steps for this monument will be announced at a future date. 

Under Mayor Adams’ leadership, the city has made significant investments and enacted policies to support women in New York City. The Adams administration launched “Women Forward NYC: An Action Plan for Gender Equity,” a more than $43 million investment aimed at making New York City a national leader on gender equity, including for transgender and gender expansive New Yorkers, with the ambitious goal of becoming the most women-forward city in the United States. Supported through city dollars, private and public partnerships, academic institutions, and federal grant funding, the action plan addresses gender disparities by connecting women to professional development and higher-paying jobs; dismantling barriers to sexual, reproductive, and chronic health care; reducing gender-based violence against women; and providing holistic housing services, including for formerly incarcerated women and domestic and gender-based violence survivors.   

Mayor Adams also launched “New York City Pathways to Industrial and Construction Careers,” an innovative new talent development initiative to bring women into emerging high-growth sectors. Additionally, child care is an issue that disproportionately impacts women, specifically women of color, who often act as primary caregivers while also representing a large number of child care sector employees. The Adams administration’s “Accessible, Equitable, High-quality, Affordable: A Blueprint for Child Care & Early Childhood Education in New York City,” is a multi-billion-dollar blueprint that invests in making child care more affordable and accessible for parents, while simultaneously investing in the non-profit sector’s workforce. 

Finally, the Adams administration, created a “Women’s Health Agenda” to close the gaps in women’s health care caused by long-standing structural inequities, including lack of access to care, lack of inclusion, and lack of innovation. Building on his work as Brooklyn borough president to address Black maternal mortality, Mayor Adams also announced expansions to the city’s doula services, the midwifery initiative, and general maternal health services programs. 

“For far too long, women and their contributions to our society have been excluded from history, but the She Built NYC initiative brings visibility and recognition to women who have helped to transform our city,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson. “We are excited Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías will be highlighted for her work as a public health expert, women`s rights activist, and first Latina director of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Trais and the other women who will be included in this project were trailblazers whose legacies will now forever be cemented in New York City history.” 

“Seldom do we see women honored by way of public art in New York City,” said New York City Councilmember Nantasha Williams. “Courageous sheroes like Billie Holiday overcame persecution by her own government for standing up for civil rights, so it is joyous to see her legacy honored among the countless white male faces of New York City monuments. My district is proud to call her our neighbor in life and in memory with this statue.” 

“A monument to Billie Holiday at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center will be an incredible addition to the vibrant cultural community of Southeast Queens,” said Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning Executive Director Leonard Jacobs and Artistic Director Courtney French. “The lady sang the blues, but every day New Yorkers will sing her praises forever.” 

“In the narrative of United States history, women too often have been gratuitously overlooked for their remarkable accomplishments and receive only short shrift,” said Valerie Paley, Ph.D., senior vice president and Sue Ann Weinberg, director, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society. “A full century before Rosa Parks resisted segregation and took a stand on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings Graham boarded a public streetcar on the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets in Manhattan in the opening salvo that would ultimately lead to the desegregation of the city’s transit systems by the end of the Civil War. It is most fitting that the extraordinary effort in New York City to honor such unsung heroines of history should continue with the long overdue recognition of Elizabeth Jennings Graham.” 

Photo credit: Billie Holiday.

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