Rename Columbus Circle as Sinatra Circle
When I moved to New York City in 1975 Columbus Circle was a pedestrian nightmare. The 2005 redesign has made the southwestern corner of Central Park more pedestrian-friendly but one of Columbus Circle’s chief flaws stubbornly remains — its name. For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Christopher Columbus has become a symbol of colonial oppression and theft. Now there is a movement to change the name of Columbus Circle.
The idea is compelling. The recent sea change in attitudes on systemic racism makes this the ideal time for it, now that Confederate monuments that stood obscenely for generations are falling. Changing the name of Columbus Circle would be in tune with times that are finally a-changing. But renaming this New York landmark has one serious drawback. In delivering justice to people of one ethnicity, it would needlessly insult another — namely Italian Americans.
It’s easy to forget that Italian Americans have also been victims of racism. When they began immigrating in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. was happy to use them as factory labor. Italian artisans provided much of the ornamentation that graces New York buildings of that period. But they were also herded into small enclaves and slammed with ethnic slurs. In other parts of the country they were even lynched.
The descendants of those Italian immigrants therefore might not be entirely happy to see the name of Christopher Columbus erased from the New York landscape. To them the now-controversial Italian explorer who paved the way for Spain’s brutal and greedy conquistadors and England’s slaveholding plantation owners is not a symbol of genocide. He is instead the icon of their full acceptance into American society. They are entitled to their feelings about this — and as politicians probably have not failed to note, people with feelings vote.
And so I propose that the name of Columbus Circle be changed to Sinatra Circle. This would continue to honor the contributions of Italian Americans. In addition, let’s rename nearby Columbus Avenue — the continuation of Ninth Avenue on the Upper West Side — as Lenape Avenue, in remembrance of the Native American tribe who originally lived on the island of Manhattan.
Frank Sinatra is the perfect choice for the circle renaming both artistically and politically. He was a genius-level master of musical phrasing who drew from both the black jazz and white pop traditions of his day. Covering all bases politically, he was an FDR Democrat who made the transition to Nixon Republican later in life — but without ever giving up his outspoken opposition to racism and anti-Semitism.
Sinatra may have not had much to say about Native Americans but he had a lot to say about discrimination against African Americans. He actively boycotted segregated nightclubs and hotels — notably in Las Vegas, where no entertainer’s voice was more powerful. He would not set foot in New York’s Stork Club until it admitted Lena Horne.
Sinatra performed with and befriended a who’s who of African American musicians including Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday (who he named as “my greatest single musical influence”), and of course his Rat Pack pal Sammy Davis Jr. He played a Carnegie Hall benefit for Martin Luther King Jr. two years before the famous “I have a dream” speech in the March on Washington.
“A friend to me has no race, no class, and belongs to no minority,” Sinatra said in a 1958 essay for Ebony magazine. On another occasion he said: “We’ve got a hell of a long way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up.”
Replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus with Frank Sinatra in a renamed Sinatra Circle would not erase all the crimes committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas — including continuing injustices such as the vote suppression of Native American citizens who live on reservations without conventional postal addresses. But it would at least make a start at salving old wounds without opening new ones.
That leaves one other nagging problem. What should we do about Columbus Day? One option would be to replace it with an Indigenous People’s Day. Several U.S. states and cities have done exactly that. (New York City, with its annual Columbus Day Parade, is a notable exception.)
But that still would leave the insult to Italian Americans. A better solution might be to create a new federal holiday named for a historically prominent Native American — Sitting Bull Day, perhaps — on a different date and allow Columbus Day to slowly fade over time, as it already is doing.
A possible model for a continued celebration of Italian American achievements would be the annual Gay Pride celebrations, which occur mostly but not entirely in June. The lack of a federal holiday does not prevent New York and other cities from honoring their gay, Irish American, Puerto Rican, and other citizens with parades that lift everyone’s spirits. There is no reason why Italian Americans should be left out in the cold.
There may be no perfect solution. If every ethnic group had its own holiday, we’d never get any work done. But not every ethnic group in the United States has had to live with the bone-deep historical wounds suffered by Native Americans and African Americans. And unlike Italian Americans, they are the victims of continued daily discrimination. Let’s bandage the wounds that are still bleeding.