Serphin Maltese, a former state senator in New York, leaned into the microphone. All this talk of removing monuments was like book burning by totalitarian regimes, he said, his voice rising with anger. "Our present mayor," he concluded, "will go down in history as the one who killed Christopher Columbus."
What should happen to Columbus – or more precisely, the monuments devoted to him – has become part of an unusual public debate. New York is the latest American city to join a nationwide reckoning over memory and history. And New Yorkers, not known for being shy about their opinions, have thoughts to share.
Three months ago, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged a review of all "symbols of hate" on city property. The announcement came days after a woman was killed in Charlottesville, Va., following a rally by white supremacists in support of a statue of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee.
Now a mayoral panel will deliver non-binding recommendations on the future of monuments and markers "seen as oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York." The first of five public meetings took place Friday in Queens.
Unlike in the American South, the knotty question here is not what to do with Confederate symbols, but how to handle the numerous tributes to Columbus – in particular, the triumphal statue of him atop a pedestal in the middle of Columbus Circle, a major plaza at the southwest corner of Central Park.
(Columbus isn't the only figure of controversy. At the hearing, some New Yorkers voiced a desire to get rid of a statue of J. Marion Sims that sits on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes called the "father of gynecology," Dr. Sims performed repeated surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia.)
The first wave of tributes linked to Columbus – an explorer from Genoa who never set foot in North America – dates back to the years after the American Revolution. The young nation embraced patriotic symbols distinct from the British crown. For instance, New York's Columbia University was originally called King's College, but changed its name in 1784.
Then, in the latter half of the 19th century, Columbus was adopted as a symbol of pride by Italian-American immigrants who faced prejudice and sometimes violence in their new land. In the 1930s, Italian-American groups successfully lobbied for the creation of Columbus Day, a federal holiday that takes place the second Monday in October.
Rick Chavolla, chairman of the American Indian Community House in New York, noted at the hearing that Columbus described the enslavement and violent subjugation of the native peoples he encountered, including the use of rape and punishments such as chopping off hands. "These are not imperfections," said Mr. Chavolla. "These are the core part of who he was."
At the hearing, the defenders of monuments to Columbus focused on his history-making voyage rather than its genocidal consequences. Joseph Guagliardo described growing up in Brooklyn where his grandmother raised him to see the explorer as an inspirational example of travelling beyond your limitations. He still participates in a commemorative wreath-laying ceremony that takes place at the statue in Columbus Circle each October.
Mr. Guagliardo, who is president of a national umbrella group of Italian-American organizations, also rejected the idea of adding further context to existing memorials. Such information is already at people's fingertips, he said. When he took his twin teenage daughters to the wreath-laying ceremony a few years ago, he remembered, they googled the explorer. "When I was giving the emotion … they were telling me what he did wrong," he said.
Jeffrey Kroessler, a librarian at John Jay College in Manhattan, argued that preserving statues of controversial historical figures provided chances to educate. If the statues are no longer there, passersby miss the opportunity to point and say, "Do you know what that son of a bitch did?" said Mr. Kroessler. "We need to remind ourselves of who we were even when we were wrong."
The tone at the two-hour hearing on Friday, which took place in a sunlit atrium in a municipal building, was impassioned but civil. Three people at a time sat at a table and took turns expressing their views, which were often diametrically opposed to the opinions articulated by the person next to them.
"I believe the statues of people who hurt others to become famous should be removed," said Trashawn Pace, a student at a nearby high school for pupils with special needs. "No one should ever have to suffer to make a person so famous that they get to be remembered forever."
For Peter Rice, Mr. Pace's teacher, the hearing was a classroom brought to life. His students had been putting together their own newspaper focused on current debates such as the controversy over football players kneeling during the national anthem and the conflict surrounding historical monuments. Five students read their thoughts aloud at the hearing for the record.
They left in high spirits, Mr. Rice said, electrified by their brush with a real-life policy debate. On the bus ride back to school, they asked their teacher if they could meet the Mayor and the President next.