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Our Memorials Teach Us to Forget

3 8 20

There are more than 1,000 monuments and memorials scattered around New York, with at least five more on the way. The de Blasio administration is starting to address the oversupply of males on pedestals by commissioning five statues of women (one per borough). And the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved a tastefully unobtrusive memorial to a brutal inferno, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, almost all of them women. This city has a lot to remember.

And yet all those statues, plaques, commemorative fountains, and abstract sculptures can never match the awesome ability to forget. Parks and squares are littered with markers that failed at their only job: to keep their topics from falling into oblivion. You may have paused a thousand times at the feet of that mounted king with the two swords crossed above his head in Central Park, but would you be able to pick Jagiello out of a lineup or recite a single fact about his exploits at the Battle of Grunwald? Have regular glimpses of the sugar-white Lorelei Fountain near the Bronx County Courthouse ever nudged you to open a volume by the poet it honors, Heinrich Heine? And how well do you recall the bright June morning in 1904 when 2,500 women and children from the Lower East Side’s German community, Kleindeutschland, boarded an East River excursion boat, the General Slocum? When a fire broke out belowdecks and roared out of control, witnesses on both banks of the river saw what a reporter described as “a spectacle of horror beyond words to express — a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in waves.” More than 1,000 people were lost in the most lethal disaster to hit New York until September 11, 2001 — their deaths memorialized by an easily overlooked........

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