On May 19th 2020, the Waterfront, Parks and Cultural Committee of Manhattan Community Planning Board No. 1, at a virtual meeting, rejected a proposal by the New York City Department of Transportation to move Arturo DiModica’s Charging Bull statue from its current location at Bowling Green to Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
Although the matter of moving a sculpture from one City street to another a block away might not seem to be a matter of particular importance or great controversy, this issue did generate significant concern among residents of Lower Manhattan because of the nature of the work, the importance of the location and the people involved.
Charging Bull first arrived at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan on December 20, 1989. Two years earlier, on October 19, 1987, the New York Stock Exchange had plunged 554 points (approximately 23 percent) in a single day. At the time, not that many years after the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975 when the City legislatively defaulted on its debt, there was some concern as to whether and in what form Wall Street and the City’s economy would survive.
By December 1989, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had recovered most of the lost ground since the 1987 crash and there was some reason for optimism. Very few however, would have predicted the next 30 years would see the Dow more than 10 times its 1989 level. At the time, it was considered entirely possible that the decline of the 1970s would return.
It was in this context that up-and-coming Italian sculptor Arturo Di Modica decided to create the Charging Bull sculpture at his own expense. In the nineteen years since he arrived in New York in 1970 at the age of 19, he had some success as a sculptor and owned a studio on Crosby Street in Greenwich Village. Despite this success, he had not obtained significant commissions for public work.
Using a tactic he had previously used with modest success, he created a work with his own money and decided to plunk to down in a public space. At a reported personal expense of more than $350,000, he created the large sculpture of a charging bull and had it placed early in the morning around Christmas time in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The Stock Exchange had erected a large Christmas tree there, and placing it under the tree, he announced it was a personal gift to the people of New York and the New York Stock Exchange.
Di Modica hoped the Stock Exchange would embrace the gift (and perhaps even reimburse him for it). Instead, Richard Grasso, then Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, called the Mayor and the New York Police Department and insisted the sculpture be removed immediately. That afternoon, a tow truck hauled it to a warehouse in Queens.
From Di Modica’s point of point of view, this was a disaster. His gift was rejected and his investment was lost. To add insult to injury, he was notified that he would have to pay the costs of hauling the sculpture to Queens, plus storage charges, if he wanted to retrieve his charging bull.
In the few hours before the police were able to haul the statue away however, it attracted considerable attention in the Wall Street area, followed by a front page article in the New York Post. Many who saw the sculpture liked it and were disappointed that the Stock Exchange had removed it. Among those who had seen it was Arthur Piccolo, a historical activist who headed the Bowling Green Association. The purpose of the Bowling Green Association was to beautify and promote Bowling Green Park. Piccolo was impressed with the quality of the sculpture and the audacity of the artist. As Di Modica’s name had appeared in the Post article, Piccolo called him up.
Piccolo suggested to Di Modica that the north end of Bowling Green Park (where the bull now stands) would be an ideal location. It’s said Di Modica was surprised by the call, and incredulous as to whether such a thing could be accomplished. In fact, Piccolo had no more authority than Di Modica, or any other private citizen, to place the sculpture there.
Piccolo, Di Modica and other supporters paid to remove the sculpture from the warehouse and hired a truck to move it to the north end of Bowling Green Park early the next morning – before the police were able to catch wind of their plan. Office workers (of whom I was one) in the area were surprised and pleased that morning to see the bull’s return. Piccolo had worked with then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, a quirky former New York City councilman who had been an ally of Mayor Ed Koch, and he called Commissioner Stern to the site.
Stern pronounced the sculpture of extremely high quality and noted that since the site was in a New York City park he would accept it temporarily on behalf of the Parks Department. The New York City Art Commission protested that no sculpture of this nature could be placed on city property without the approval of the Art Commission (a laborious process which could sometimes take years) and it should be again removed.
Commissioner Stern went to Mayor Koch, who apparently liked the sculpture, and in his inimical style told his appointees on the Art Commission that the work should stay, at least temporarily. That afternoon Commissioner Stern and Piccolo told a cheering crowd the news. (Later the Mayor said it would stay as long as he was Mayor.) Technically, Charging Bull is still there temporarily, on loan from Di Modica to the Parks Department. Unlike virtually all other monuments and sculptures in the city, it remains owned by Di Modica, not the City.
The Bull soon proved to be an instant landmark. As the traditional symbol of optimism in the securities markets (as opposed to the bear), the Bull became a symbol to people working in Lower Manhattan of the recovery of the Wall Street and the City. As the boom times of the 1990s on Wall Street accelerated, it became a symbol of the strength and vibrancy of the City and its economy, and its resilience and ability to overcome adversity in tough times. In a later interview Di Modica said his intent was to inspire New Yorkers “to carry on fighting with strength and determination through the hard times for a brighter future.” Almost immediately it became a popular tourist attraction.
Because of the Bull, Arturo Di Modica became an internationally known sculptor, who was able to claim commissions throughout the world. Ultimately there were copies of the Bull placed in other major cities (notably Shanghai and Warsaw), and smaller copies were sold at auction and by galleries, some for prices approaching $500,000. Di Modica was eventually offered $5 million for New York’s Bull, but turned down such offers unless the buyer agreed to leave the sculpture where it stood. In 2008 he sold his Crosby Street studio to establish a 12 acre sculpture school in his native Vittoria, Italy. He now apparently spends most of his time in Italy, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen and in 1999 received the Ellis Island Foundation award for immigrant achievement.
At the same time, the Bowling Green Association became more important, as Bowling Green became a much more important tourist destination. Piccolo subsequently was active in having the north end of Bowling Green renamed Evacuation Day Plaza in 2017. Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783 was the day when George Washington took over New York City from the British. It was at this site that John Van Arsdale, a young Continental sailor , first raised the American flag over New York City to pave the way for George Washington’s arrival. For more than 130 years, it was a site of celebration, and Piccolo’s efforts helped to reestablish it as such. After a hundred year hiatus. Piccolo was instrumental in organizing numerous ethnic and historical celebrations in Bowling Green.
Parks Commissioner Henry Stern later went on to serve three terms as Parks Commissioner. He recently, before his death five years ago, would say that the placement of the Bull at Bowling Green was his finest act in 35 years of public service.
The Fearless Girl
In the middle of the night before International Women’s Day in 2017, almost 30 years after Charging Bull was placed at Bowling Green, a new statue, Fearless Girl, was placed several yards in front of the Bull. Created by Delaware artist Kristin Visbal, Fearless Girl’s placement had her standing up in challenge to Charging Bull. The new statue was the brainchild of the advertising agency McCann New York and the investment firm State Street Global, and was also part of a campaign to include more women on the boards of directors of Wall Street firms.
From Di Modica and Piccolo’s point of view, this was an attempt to exploit Charging Bull for an advertising campaign. Piccolo and Di Modica threatened to sue to have Fearless Girl removed. While the claims that the promoters of Fearless Girl were trading on Charging Bull’s artistic work for their own profit might have intellectual merit, from a legal standpoint it was difficult to argue that having originally appropriated the City’s property without authority, they had a legal claim to prevent the City from permitting some other artist from doing the same, at the same location.
Supporters of Fearless Girl argued that this was another example of stifling the role of women. Mayor Bill DeBlasio, much less a fan of Wall Street than Ed Koch had been, supported the efforts of the backers of Fearless Girl (who Piccolo bitterly complained were significant campaign contributors) to keep the little statue there for an extended run. Although many New Yorkers sympathized with the placement of Fearless Girl, it was subsequently moved to Broad Street in front of the Stock Exchange.
Several months after the Fearless Girl controversy, the Deblasio administration (apparently at the request of the Stock Exchange) announced plans to have Charging Bull moved to a new location in front of the Stock Exchange, where Di Modica had unsuccessfully tried to place it 30 years before. Piccolo and Di Modica now opposed this proposal, arguing that the Bowling Green location had become a prominent internationally recognized tourist site in Lower Manhattan. In his blog, Piccolo regularly railed against this plan as a corrupt bargain between Mayor Deblasio and the new owners of the New York Stock Exchange.
As a first step in implementing this move, the DeBlasio administration sought to obtain approval for the move from the Waterfront and Cultural Committee of Manhattan Community Planning Board No. 1. While it was unclear that such approval was necessary, the administration presumably felt that it would be politically easier to effect the move if it had the backing of the local Community Board. With the City largely under lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, on May 19, 2020, the Community Board held a virtual hearing. On his blog, Piccolo urged like minded New Yorkers to tune in and make their voices heard.
The Manhattan Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation argued on behalf of the DeBlasio administration that after a careful study of traffic patterns in the Bowling Green area, the City had decided that the current location of Charging Bull posed a risk to pedestrians and others and that the statue should be moved to a location on Broad Street in front of the Stock Exchange. He argued that given the popularity of the statue (particularly as augmented by Fearless Girl) there was too much congestion in the Bowling Green area. The risk of a terrorist attack at that location would be lessened by relocation to Broad Street, they said.
A number of members of the board committee expressed skepticism about the necessity of the relocation, and several asked why, if there had been no serious incidents in the past 30 years at this location, there was now the concern about pedestrian safety. One member expressed concern about the cost to the City of such a move, and the Commissioner stated that this was not a concern because the New York Stock Exchange would pick up the tab.
Piccolo then spoke in opposition with a somewhat intemperate attack on the motives of Mayor DeBlasio and the leaders of the New York Stock Exchange. He argued that the real purpose of the move was to assist the marketing of the New York Stock Exchange and there was no benefit to the people of Lower Manhattan. He also stated that he and Di Modica would fight any attempt to change the location of Charging Bull in court and noted that the statue was still owned by Di Modica, not the City.
A somewhat more temperate opposition was provided by Todd Fine of the Washington Street Historical Society. He argued that the current location was appropriate as it had reached a kind of landmark status. There were then comments by residents and neighbors of the new location, who argued the move would increase tourist traffic in what they deemed a residential neighborhood. These latter comments appeared to be the most influential with committee members who turned down the proposal, suggesting other alternatives should be considered. Within hours of the vote, Piccolo trumpeted on his blog what he deemed as a surprising upset victory for the people of Lower Manhattan over the corporate greed of the Mayor and the New York Stock Exchange.
At this point it is unclear whether the City will decide to pursue the relocation, but a number of issues remain unresolved.
It’s clear that Lower Manhattan is evolving from a financial district into a significantly residential historic district, increasingly dependent on a tourist economy.
It’s unfortunate that few of the participants in this controversy seemed aware of the significance of Evacuation Day Plaza, named just three years earlier on application of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association.
From a cultural tourism perspective (including promoting one of the most important historical sites in the City), the concerns expressed by the mostly newer residents that a major tourist attraction doesn’t belong in the neighborhood are potentially problematic. Particularly, as one of the proposals about to be advanced by the Lower Manhattan Historical Association is to reopen the Stock Exchange visitors center, which closed when tours of the Stock Exchange ended in 2001. The Association is hoping that like Charging Bull and Fearless Girl, such a move would be in the long-term interests of the City.
Photo of Charging Bull courtesy Wikimedia user