Ten statues in New York City with brilliant backstories

Lady Liberty ain’t the only game in town—here’s the scoop on ten more unique statues in New York City

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Good, bad or just plain ugly, it seems like wherever you turn in New York City, there’s a statue to gawp at. For any of us who've wondered, “What’s that about?” (that'll be all of us), our roundup of the ten greatest backstories behind the statues is here to shed some light on those pretty pieces of stone. Whether you’re taking in the serene beauty of Green-Wood Cemetery, reenacting the dance sequence from Enchanted at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park or plotting your escape from New York at Port Authority, you’ll know the score. Let the (totally fun) history lesson commence!

  • Photograph: Arturo Di Modica

    1  Charging Bull, Bowling Green Park

    This enduring symbol of in-your-face capitalism has become synonymous with Wall Street, but it started as guerrilla art. Sculptor Arturo Di Modica built it with his own money and illegally installed the 7,000-pound beast in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 1989. The cops impounded it, but by popular demand it was resurrected down the street.

  • Photograph: Mike Carsten/Archigrafika

    2  Triumph of Civic Virtue, Green-Wood Cemetery

    This 22-ton monstrosity has been the subject of near-universal hatred since its debut in 1922. It’s meant to depict Virtue triumphing over Vice and Corruption; what it actually looks like is a big, naked jerk tromping all over two perfectly nice ladies. Shuffled from borough to borough by politicians who found it loathsome, the piece finally came to roost in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in 2012.

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    3  V.I. Lenin, Lower East Side

    No, that isn’t a giant hailing a cab in the sky—it’s revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The Soviet government commissioned the piece in the late ’80s, but the state collapsed before it could be unveiled; it eventually found its way to the roof of a downtown apartment block called—what else?—Red Square. And it gets weirder: Behind the statue ticks a clock with the numbers displayed out of order.

  • Photograph: NYC Parks and Recreation

    4  Giuseppe Garibaldi, Washington Square Park

    Sculptor Giovanni Turini’s plans for this effigy of the Italian general, which was to perch atop a boulder flanked by soldiers, were cut short when the project’s coffers suddenly ran dry. In order to make it stand on a pedestal, foundry workers yanked the figure’s legs into an inhuman position. Turini came back from a trip abroad to find his masterpiece mutilated.

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    5  Ralph Kramden, Port Authority Bus Terminal

    This homage to The Honeymooners’ bus driver, commissioned by TV Land, shows a smiling Jackie Gleason (it’s probably the only grin you’ll see in this depot). The clincher is the description on the plaque, which reads: BUS DRIVER—RACCOON LODGE TREASURER—DREAMER.

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    6  James Fountain, Union Square

    Clean drinking water wasn’t easy to find in 19th-century Gotham, which was one reason folks turned to the sauce. Philanthropist Daniel Willis James funded this public fountain in the 1880s in an effort to encourage temperance. The water-spewing lions’ heads remain today, but the tin cups that were chained alongside them are gone. Score one for hygiene!

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    7  James Gordon Bennett Memorial, Herald Square

    Is something in Herald Square watching you? That would be the pair of owls on this monument, whose eyes glow green every few seconds come nightfall. The birds once perched atop the now-demolished New York Herald Building—they were an obsession for eccentric publisher Bennett, who claimed that an owl once guided him to land when he was lost at sea during the Civil War.

  • Photograph: Aaron Brashear

    8  Minerva, Green-Wood Cemetery

    In terms of badass female mythical figures, Minerva is right up there with Lady Liberty. So it’s only fitting that this 1920 statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, erected atop Brooklyn’s highest point, is positioned to wave to (or high-five?) her torch-bearing lady-bro to the northwest.

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    9  Shinran Shonin, New York Buddhist Church

    Many of the buildings in Hiroshima were destroyed when American forces dropped an atomic bomb in 1945. But this bronze statue of the Buddhist monk survived, even though it stood less than two miles from the center of the blast. After the war, a Japanese man had it shipped to New York, where it guards this Upper West Side temple.

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    10  Angel of the Waters, Central Park

    Emma Stebbins was the first woman to create a public-art piece in NYC, after the city commissioned her to design Bethesda Fountain’s centerpiece in 1861. Rumor holds that the artist modeled the angel on her lover, stage actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman, who was renowned for her cross-dressing turn as Romeo.

Photograph: Arturo Di Modica

1  Charging Bull, Bowling Green Park

This enduring symbol of in-your-face capitalism has become synonymous with Wall Street, but it started as guerrilla art. Sculptor Arturo Di Modica built it with his own money and illegally installed the 7,000-pound beast in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 1989. The cops impounded it, but by popular demand it was resurrected down the street.




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