At the northwest corner of Central Park lies Frederick Douglass Circle, a memorial plaza featuring an eight-foot bronze sculpture of the famed abolitionist leader, women's suffragist, editor, orator, author, and statesman. While Douglass is an integral figure in American history, it took time for the sculpture and accompanying renovation of the area to come about—a rare, but needed, celebration of African-American history in New York City.
As a student of architecture and an African-American New Yorker who moved to Harlem in the 1980s, I’m deeply interested in the City’s Black history. This passion grew as I became more invested in neighborhood preservation, civic improvements, and public art projects. Much of the discussion around issues of equity, inclusion, and a more diverse representation of African-Americans in public art and monuments two decades ago still rings true today. This story of the creation of Frederick Douglass Circle is personal—and an example of how coalition building can create this necessary change.
In honor of Black History Month, let’s revisit how the sculpture of Frederick Douglass—along with a statue of Duke Ellington, also located along Central Park North—came to be, and the Central Park Conservancy’s role in making it happen.
THE CONSERVANCY AND THE COMMUNITY
The path to a renewed Frederick Douglass Circle started with a tribute to a musical great. The first public monument to honor an African-American in New York City, unveiled in 1997, was the statue of the famed Harlem Renaissance composer and bandleader Duke Ellington at the northeast corner of Central Park. Sculpted by Robert Graham, the artwork was advanced through the funding efforts and heroic persistence of the African-American cabaret entertainer Bobby Short. Ellington’s sister, Ruth; a trio of New York City mayors, Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins, and Ed Koch; and an enthusiastic crowd of Harlem residents attended the unveiling.
The monument’s arrival coincided with several recent neighborhood improvements, including the Conservancy’s reconstruction of the Harlem Meer and building of the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, all combining to inspire area residents and politicians to contemplate the Park’s north end as a revitalized and celebratory “Gateway to Harlem.”
This community enthusiasm and sense of possibility were, in many ways, an outgrowth derived from years of dialogue and bridge-building between the community and the Conservancy. Following a series of challenges and setbacks related to community engagement regarding proposed Park projects, the Conservancy looked to establish better avenues of outreach with its neighbors around issues of Park programing and landscape design projects. To that end, Erana Stennett, overseeing community and government relations for the Conservancy at the time, established a more structured form of communication with neighboring communities and their elected officials, accelerating focus around engagement and input in the Conservancy’s work.
REDESIGNING FREDERICK DOUGLASS CIRCLE
Through efforts large and small, the Conservancy’s partnerships began to make a difference. A group of 110th Street building owners and neighborhood residents—called the Harlem Gateway Committee, under the leadership of Betti Jean Miller—began to lobby for improvements along Central Park North. To tackle what was then the ever-present neighborhood scourge of graffiti, the Conservancy purchased a power-washer at the Committee's request and trained their volunteer streetscape workforce (men from the neighboring Lincoln Correction Facility) on its use. The appearance of residential properties immediately improved. Next, residents of Towers on the Park (a moderate-income housing development located on Frederick Douglass Circle) approached the Conservancy. Its occupants wanted to advance long-promised improvements to the derelict circle’s streetscape and roadway. Together, these groups began to press for an improved traffic design and public art opportunities at Frederick Douglass Circle, and lighting and streetscape enhancements along Central Park North.
At the time, the “circle” contained turn lanes surrounding the intersection of 110th Street and Eighth Avenue, creating an irregular roadway circle. (It originally supported the Ninth Avenue train’s elevated tracks, which were demolished in the 1940s.) Beginning in the 1950s, the circle came to honor Douglass in name only. To explore the Towers’ concerns and to consider potential ideas and art opportunities for a monument to Douglass, the Conservancy organized Help Design! Frederick Douglass Circle, a series of community workshops in 1995.
The project cast a wide net, bringing together City government, traffic engineers, and landscape architects in partnership with local property owners and community residents. Funded through support by the Harlem Community Development Corporation, the Manhattan Borough President’s office, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the New York State Council on the Arts, the effort established a two-part decision-making panel, comprised of a community-based steering committee and professional advisory board.
Over a two-year period, the Conservancy orchestrated a series of public design workshops, symposia, performances, and presentations on Douglass and other African-American historic figures. This produced summary guidelines and a base plan for the design of Frederick Douglass Circle that served as a guide for the site’s development. A public exhibition of preliminary designs was mounted at the Dana Center, with a public kick-off event attended by President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation, Rodney Slater; Congressman Charles Rangel; Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields; and community design participants and neighbors.
Establishing Frederick Douglass Circle as a traffic circle conforming to Department of Transportation guidelines made it only the second such configuration in Manhattan after Columbus Circle. That meant that a consolidated central space was to be created there, advancing public and political consensus that a monument honoring Douglass could be incorporated. With that, local politicians and residents saw an opportunity to establish a worthy “Gateway to Harlem,” with Ellington and Douglass anchoring the two northern corners of the Park.
The question then became where to find the funding for a capital improvement of this scale and magnitude. Fortunately, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Federal Department of Transportation was soliciting projects under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). As a curious New Yorker working at Harlem’s Abyssinian Development Corporation, I’d participated in several of the Conservancy’s Frederick Douglass Circle design workshops. Then, Congressman Rangel approached Abyssinian’s director, Karen Philips, to encourage the organization to submit a proposal for ISTEA funding focused on the enhancement of the Harlem Gateway. Realizing the project was beyond her organization’s capacity, Philips set up a meeting to introduce the idea—and me—to the Conservancy’s then-president, Betsy Barlow Rogers, who was about to retire and establish Cityscape Institute (a design initiative looking at public space enhancement).
Interested in pursuing the project and federal funding, Rogers teamed me with the Conservancy’s Stennett, and the two of us crafted an application, supported by documentation of community and political support garnered through the Frederick Douglass Circle design exercise. The application would encompass streetscape improvements from Fifth Avenue to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, as well as the implementation of the Frederick Douglass Circle and monument. After winning the grant, we partnered with the New York City Departments of Transportation and Parks & Recreation to advance the project.
The Cityscape Institute led a design competition for the circle in 2003, attracting artist proposals from around the country. Juried by the community, art professionals, and City representatives, the winning design was a collaborative proposal submitted by Harlem-based artist Algernon Miller and the Hungarian-born sculptor Gabriel Koren. Both artists had designed prior projects in Harlem: Miller, the “Tree of Hope” on Adam C. Powell, Jr. Boulevard, and Koren, a sculpture of Malcolm X located at the site of the former Audubon Ballroom, where the civil rights leader was slain, for which she received the New York City Arts Commission’s Excellence in Design Award.
UNVEILING A NEW LOOK
For the Frederick Douglass Memorial, Miller’s overall design included granite seating and paving patterns based on traditional African-American quilt motifs, inspired by an influential book he read at the time, Hidden in Plain View. The New York Times would later challenge the book in an article, stirring debate, review, and modifications to the project as it underwent construction.
Miller also created a bronze water wall depicting the Big Dipper constellation that guided those on the “underground railroad” to freedom in the north. Throughout the site are carved quotes by Douglass, some reflecting on his life and others (such as “Mankind is various. They differ like the waves, but they are one like the sea.”) on American citizenship. Koren focused on the figure itself, determined to make her Douglass sculpture humanly relatable. She resisted public desires to place the figure on a pedestal or to craft him at a giant’s scale. In the end, her figure was a compelling and nuanced standing bronze portrait of Douglass, inspired by 19th-century photographs.
Following this period of design development were years of reviews and approvals by City agencies, followed by bidding and final construction. Streetscape and lighting enhancements along the entirety of Central Park North were completed first. The new Frederick Douglass Circle opened to the public in June 2010 and the sculpture of Douglass was formally dedicated in September 2011.
Broadway actor André DeShields spoke at the dedication ceremony. Costumed like Douglass himself, DeShields reminded us of the orator’s sage words: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Reflecting on the years and effort it took to get to that day, I could offer an empathetic “amen” to that! The journey has also been very rewarding, made more so every year by the community’s embrace of the memorial site and statue for public contemplation, celebration, and civic activism. The Conservancy’s willingness, then as now, to see the community as a partner, client, and voice in the earliest stages of their planning and design thinking has continued to enhance the many Park projects they’ve executed since, all made better through the community dialogues they continue to facilitate.
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