Actor Chazz Palminteri called Chirlane McCray a “racist” for snubbing Italian American icon Saint Frances Cabrini in the “She Built NYC” competition to erect statues of great women. “Absolutely, she is being racist,” said the “Bronx Tale” actor and writer, appearing on a recent New York City radio talk show. “C’mon. As Italian Americans we have to speak up. If you’re an Italian American and you’re listening to us right now and if you have any soul in you, you have to do something. Stand up and do something.”
The city asked New Yorkers which female women deserved to have statues built to commemorate their lives and accomplishments. Saint Francesca Xavier Cabrini, who founded an orphanage, a school for girls and 67 charities in the 1880s, received the most votes from the public – by far, more than double the number for the next highest placed woman. McCray, who is married to current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, oversaw the contest along with former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen. Instead of the Saint, the duo chose two drag queens and an abortion advocate, leading to backlash from the Catholic community.
Of the seven that were chosen, three are black – singer Billie Holiday, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and LGBTQ activist Marsha Johnson (a self-described drag queen who sometimes identified as a woman). Two others being honored are abortion-rights activist Helen Rodriguez Trias and transgender advocate Sylvia Rivera (both of whom are Hispanic). Rivera and Johnson are slated to share a monument in Manhattan.
Only one of the statues will honor a white woman, Katherine Walker, who kept the Robbins Reef Lighthouse burning in New York Harbor for 30 years, during which she rescued more than 50 sailors from shipwrecks
“The whole process was a charade,” said Harriet Senie, who served on the panel that weighed the poll results and recommended to McCray that the city honor groups over individuals. After the votes came in McCray formed a blue-ribbon panel to review the results and make its own recommendations on the seven winners, who will be memorialized by six monuments in the city, funded by about $5 million in taxpayer money. McCray made it clear from the beginning what she wanted. “Growing up as an African-American woman, I didn’t see anyone who represented me in media or popular culture, even though women make incredible contributions,” she told the media. “Erecting statues of women is an easy way to correct that historical record.”
None of those selected were among the top seven women picked in the poll. Phil Foglia of the Italian American Legal Defense and Higher Education Fund, who joined Palminteri on the air, said he wrote McCray last month that the decision to ignore Cabrini “can only be seen as an insult to Italian Americans.”
“The People of NYC deserve an explanation for this arbitrary decision that flies in the face of the nominating process and this disheartening gesture of disrespect to the Italian American community,” Foglia’s letter said.
McCray responded in a letter stating that Mother Cabrini “led a remarkable life” and “set an example of compassion and leadership that resonates powerfully today.”
However, the first lady failed to explain the decision, saying only that “it will take many more years to correct centuries of neglect and the glaring gender and ethnic imbalance in our public spaces.”
Palminteri, who noted that October is Italian Heritage Month, said it’s not good enough. “She has to have a statue,” the actor said. “This is strong and we’re not going to stop until somebody rectifies the situation.”
City Hall said that Cabrini could, however, get a statue in the future but provided no details. In replying to Palminteri’s statement, a spokesperson for McCray described it as ludacris (sic). That alone is a telling feature. Ludacris is the name of a rapper, while ludicrous is the correct spelling of the word that means foolish, unreasonable or so out of place as to be amusing, but we find nothing amusing about McCray and her “blue-ribbon” panel; we find it sickening and disturbing.