Shirley Chisholm talking to a man in front of a storefront with a sign reading Bedford Stuyvesant Youth in Action.
Shirley Chisholm in 1968. The first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, a monument commemorating her will be the first by She Built NYC, a project to rectify the gender imbalance of New York City monuments. John Duricka/AP

She Built NYC, a project to rectify the gender imbalance in NYC’s monuments, is only one project of the city’s women-focused portal Women.NYC.

Chirlane McCray remembers her sense of discomfort when she moved with her family into New York City’s mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. “I immediately noticed that the artwork was mostly white and male figures of wealth, power, and privilege, and to have those faces staring down at us every day was a bit much,” McCray said chuckling.

A resident of Gracie Mansion as long as her husband, Bill de Blasio is mayor, McCray felt a sense of urgency to make sure that the residence reflected the diversity of the city. On top of that, she wanted to see all New Yorkers represented in the city’s public art.

Five years later, McCray’s desire for more inclusive, diverse spaces is coming to fruition thanks to She Built NYC, a public-arts campaign formed by McCray and former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, Alicia Glen. The initiative seeks to right a wrong: Five out of New York City’s 150 statues of historical figures represent women. She Built NYC aims to raise that ratio to 50 percent.

The campaign was rolled out by Women.NYC, a website that acts as a career and business services portal for women, and that announces and features new NYC programs of interest to women. Launched by McCray and Glen in May of 2018, the website aims to empower New York City women in their careers and businesses by connecting them to educational offerings, like free tech classes and opportunities for investment. Any programs featured on the website must be sponsored by the city, and all are business or career related. Women.NYC does generate some programs, but it also acts as an aggregator of city-agency programs related to women.

A sampling of their offerings includes the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music, and Theatre, a fund that awards grants to projects made by, for, or about women. Eligible projects range from music to theater productions to feature films and documentaries. Another initiative, WE Venture, plans to invest $30 million dollars over the next five years in women-owned and minority-owned startups through its partnership with five women-led venture capital firms.

She Built NYC will be one of the more visible projects highlighted through Women.NYC as it aims to install permanent monuments of various pioneering women and of events related to women, across the city. Working with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Women.NYC kicked off the campaign in June of 2018 with an open call for nominations.

From the more than 2000 nominations an advisory panel created a short list of recommended monuments for the city to consider. A spokesman for the Department of Cultural Affairs said that McCray and Glen had final approval over the selections. *

The city’s long-standing official process for approving city monuments amplified the complicated issue of who makes decisions about what deserves recognition in New York City. While the public made 2000-plus nominations for the selections made by an advisory committee, all monuments and building projects on city land or property must go through an approval process by the 11-member Design Commission as per the New York City Charter. Because of the commission’s composition—its seven non ex-officio members are nominated by a century-old organization that has had this role for as long—it has been accused of exerting a patrician bias and vice-like control over the city’s public works.

Ultimately, the seven women selected for monuments represent a wide range of expertise and contributions to New York City history. The first one scheduled to be installed will be of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress who represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms. A Brooklynite, her monument will be installed at the Parkside entrance of Prospect Park by the end of 2020.

The other selected women include Billie Holiday, famed American jazz singer and Queens resident, whose monument will be erected near Queens Borough Hall. A monument to Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who fought to desegregate New York’s streetcars, will be located by Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías, the first Latina director of the American Public Health Association, will have a monument dedicated to her in St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx, near Lincoln Hospital where she headed the pediatrics department. Katherine Walker, a single mom who saved the lives of at least 50 people during her years as the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse, will be honored with a statue at the Staten Island Ferry landing.

Chisholm’s selection was announced in November 2018; four were announced on March 2019; and, in May, as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall resistance approached on June 28, the city announced a monument dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, activists who founded a gay and trans advocacy organization (S.T.A.R.—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). It will be installed in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle in Greenwich Village, just a short distance from the Stonewall Inn.

McCray said, “when we announced the Shirley Chisholm statue, it was impossible not to tear up. It meant so much to people. When we announced the monuments for Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera it was also impossible to stand there and not get chills up and down your spine because of how much it means, not just in terms of our city’s history, but how much it means to the people who are there and not feeling visible and represented.”

Faye Penn, executive director of Women.NYC, said, “It’s no accident that this comes at a time when women’s protections are being rolled back and transgender protections are being rolled back … We believe that we are the best place in the world for women to succeed, and we want that reflected not only in our programs, but we wanted to honor the trailblazers who led the way.”

The first and only artists to be selected thus far are Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous who will design the Shirley Chisholm monument. The team was chosen after a lengthy process launched by The Department of Cultural Affairs with an open call for artist proposals. The Percent for Art program (administered by the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs) selected five finalists from the open call submissions. The city released the artists’ work, inviting the public to comment on their proposals online at Women.NYC. Following the public feedback period, a second Percent for Art panel selected Williams and Jeyifous who then had to refine their design prior to presenting to local community boards and submitting the final proposal to the Public Design Commission.

The monuments will be funded through the $10 million that the de Blasio administration allocated for the creation of new public artwork after the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers recommended expanding the city’s collection of public art to be more inclusive.

On the importance of the city funding such an endeavor, Penn said, “These are all people who contributed to New York City, and it’s important, we honor them as a city and not wait until a private funder steps up.” However, the city will also consider proposals for privately funded monuments of women or events that were submitted during the open call for nominations, and that include funding for a maintenance endowment.

The city believes the monument to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will be the “first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world.”

“I love all of the monuments, but I’m especially moved by the monument to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera because it’s so important,” said Penn. “By creating what we believe is the first monument to transgender individuals, we are sending a signal to the world about our priorities.”

McCray sees the She Built NYC project as an important statement about who matters, and that she said, is everyone: “When people are excluded from the landscape, when people are excluded from the stories that are told in public spaces, the message is that they don’t matter to our city’s identity. So we want to make sure that everyone—women, gender nonconforming people—are not just mentioned but made visible. We want their stories told.”

*CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Public Design Commission made the initial selection of the women to be commemorated from the public’s nominations.

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