Asking Questions in the Bronx about Public History & the WWI Centennial

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HighbridgeBy Jennifer Wingate, Ph.D.

Dr. Wingate is an Associate Professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. She is the Co-Editor of Public Art Dialogue. Dr. Wingate is the author of “Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials,” and a member of the WWI Centennial Committee for New York City.

This Friday, timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the First World War (and impending centennial of the Armistice on November 11), a sculpture of a U.S. infantryman, or “doughboy,” holding a rifle in one hand, and a grenade in the other, will be rededicated in the Bronx after having resided in a Parks Department warehouse for over forty years. In the 1970s, metal prices were high, and city monuments on park property were vandalized with regularity. The Bronx doughboy, the Red Hook, Brooklyn, World War I Memorial, and the General Fowler (Civil War) Memorial in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, were among the sculptures damaged and removed from their original locations at that time.

New York sent more soldiers to fight in World War I than any other state, and it is fitting that the city has received centennial funding to preserve and restore the Bronx doughboy sculpture, originally dedicated in the Highbridge neighborhood in 1923 and now located in Macombs Dam Park, across the street from Yankee Stadium. In addition to the restoration of the physical memorial, researchers have recovered the biographies of the 21 men whose names are inscribed on a new honor roll that has replaced the one stolen in 1974.

The centennial has afforded the rare opportunity to research, recover, and restore World War I memorials across the country. These memorials are historical artifacts in our midst that offer portals to the past. Despite the enormous efforts that have made this restoration possible, however, a degree of commitment is still required to learn the language of these monuments.

Like any historical artifact, we appreciate and preserve it for what it helps us learn about the time in which it was made and about the present. Bronze figurative statuary does not speak to us in 2018 the same way that it did almost 100 years ago. If we want historical monuments to stay relevant, it is necessary to confront head on what’s incongruous about them.

Passersby and visitors should have every right to wonder, for example, why there’s a sculpture of man throwing a grenade in the park across the street from Yankee stadium? We should all ask ourselves what myths about warfare, American exceptionalism, and masculinity sculptures like this perpetuate. I have written about many of the women sculptors who made World War I memorials. When we see the restored and rededicated Bronx doughboy, we can appreciate whom he pays tribute to, but we also must ask what and whom he does not represent.

In other words, why are there so few sculptures to the women who participated in the war effort? Where are the memorials to African American soldiers in New York City? What kinds of struggles did women and immigrants go through to make sculptures of soldiers in the public sphere? Where did fighting doughboy sculptures help shore up anti-immigrant sentiment? How have the meanings of local NYC WWI memorials evolved over the years? I have tried to address and answer some of these questions in my writing about WWI memorial sculpture in the United States.

If we spend the effort to restore these monuments and rededicate them, we must engage the stories they have to tell, the messy, imperfect histories that make up the city’s rich urban public fabric.