Civic Virtue back in the spotlight
by Michael Perlman
Jul 31, 2013 | 4386 views | 2 2 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Perhaps no sculpture has never experienced as much controversy as Civic Virtue, which faced two moves, a “sexist” label, and a lawsuit.

Nearly eight months have passed since the Triumph of Civic Virtue statue was detached from the Angelina Crane fountain just west of Queens Borough Hall on Queens Boulevard and moved to Brooklyn.

On December 15, 2012, Queens residents awoke to the sight of the publicly owned, 22-foot statue being hoisted by crane for its move to the privately owned Green-Wood Cemetery.

Local preservationists petitioned elected officials and the Parks Department to restore the weathered and flaking 24-ton statue and fountain for over a decade. On November 13, 2012, the city's Design Commission approved a move of Civic Virtue through a “long-term loan” agreement.

A debate over the merits of Civic Virtue was re-ignited in February 2011 at a press conference staged by former congressman Anthony Weiner and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras. Weiner called the statue “sexist” and “anti-woman,” and addressed a letter to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) calling for its removal from Queens.

But that wasn't the first time the statue was at the center of controversy. In 1922, Civic Virtue was erected in City Hall Park, but when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia despised viewing its backside from his office at City Hall, it was transported to Kew Gardens in 1941.

Civic Virtue depicts a muscular nude Hercules who stands over two mermaid-like sirens, which allegorically represent vice and corruption. It is a symbolism of Greek mythology which denounces societal wrongdoings, but some viewed the statue as sexist.

Upon learning about Civic Virtue’s potential move, Jon Torodash of Kew Gardens founded, an advocacy group aimed at preserving Civic Virtue and acquiring funding for its restoration. The group coordinated a protest in front of the statue on December 8.

“DCAS and the Design Commission have a mandate to preserve public art residing on public grounds, and it is their obligation to Queens residents who pay their share of taxes,” said Torodash, who is also a candidate for City Council this year.

“The relocation of Civic Virtue by Frederick MacMonnies will ensure the long-term preservation of the sculpture, which has been deteriorating and is in need of treatment,” said Jerome White, A DCAS spokesperson. “Through this public-private partnership, Civic Virtue will remain fully accessible to the public, and the sculpture will be restored for the first time in decades, so it can remain for future generations to enjoy.

“As part of a long-term loan agreement, Green-Wood Cemetery paid for the transportation as for the design and construction of the statue’s base, and will pay for any future conservation and maintenance,” he added. “Conservation would have been more expensive had the statue remained in its previous location, and city conservation funds would not have covered this work.”

Councilman and borough president candidate Peter Vallone, Jr. has questioned the city's efforts to make the public aware of the plan to move the statue.

“Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the Design Commission sent out a mass email with items being considered for the entire city,” said Vallone. “Many people and City Council had their email down, so not one citizen I know of testified.”

Whitestone resident and documentary producer Robert LoScalzo became aware of in October 2012. Upon learning about DCAS’ plan to transport Civic Virtue to Green-Wood Cemetery, his first impression was suspicion.

Several days prior to Civic Virtue’s move, LoScalzo submitted a Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL) request to DCAS, seeking the release of all records of communication between DCAS and Green-Wood Cemetery.

When DCAS refused to release all records, LoScalzo filed an Article 78 petition on June 27 against the agency and its commissioner, Edna Wells Handy.

“DCAS failed to respond to my FOIL request and my appeal in a lawful way,” he said. “When I pressed DCAS, they admitted to other records of communication, but prevented me from acquiring them.”

LoScalzo emphasized that once an agency shares information with a private firm or person, it loses the shield of privacy.

“DCAS is also claiming the records are exempt because they are inter-agency communications,” he said. “However, that is not the case since those records were shared with Green-Wood Cemetery and the involved vendors, which are not agencies. The public deserves to know who made the decision for the public to pay, who approached who, how much everything would cost, how it would be moved, and why the statue was privatized.”

LoScalzo reviewed the small amount of records released by DCAS, and insisted that the financial numbers behind the move don't add up.

“The taxpayers of the City of New York paid $50,000 to have the statue conserved and prepared to be transported,” he said. “We also paid $49,801 to build an armature and hoist it onto a flatbed truck. We should have been able to conserve and preserve the statue in Queens for less than $50,000. If the statue was not moved, we would have had $50,000 for its ongoing maintenance.”

“An advisory opinion was prepared, expressing the belief that certain records, if they exist, were withheld from Mr. LoScalzo in a manner that is inconsistent with law,” said Robert Freeman, director of the state Committee On Open Government, which oversees FOIL, in an interview on July 25.

A day later, Elizabeth Thomas, deputy director of Communications for the NYC Law Department stated, "We are in the process of reviewing these new claims, and will be preparing an appropriate response."

On September 9, that response to LoScalzo's petition will be delivered in court.

“DCAS can either release all records, or they can fight tooth and nail to maintain secrecy despite legal arguments and the opinion of the Committee on Open Government,” said LoScalzo. “I wonder whether we’ve seen the last of Civic Virtue in Queens in our lifetime, or perhaps it will be returned.”

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Ray Walker
August 01, 2013
Kudos to Mr. Torodash; and as always, thank you, Michael, for your relentless civic involvement and great reporting.
Shirley Chen
September 13, 2013
This and a general change in neighborhood care and up keep is why you can never go back. I grew up on queens blvd and kew gardens, across from the criminal court house. My father was the cheif for the pub resteraunt. I came back to see kew gardens once and felt like I got kicked in the stomache. Thanks for the article. Woman stop the crap, the statue was not sexist if you consider the time it was made. I thought people used common sence. OOPS I thought.