Friday, July 16, 2021

FDR Hope Memorial Sculpture Depicting President Franklin Roosevelt In Wheelchair Greeting Young Girl On Crutches Completed After 12 Long Years And Unveiled To Public Saturday July 17 At Roosevelt Island Southpoint Park Thanks To RIDA, Dedicated Volunteers, RIOC, FDR 4 Freedoms Park And Financial Donors

The Roosevelt Island FDR Hope Memorial depicting President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair greeting a young girl standing on crutches will be unveiled Saturday July 17 at Southpoint Park. Yesterday, the box covering the Memorial was partially removed revealing the statue figures of FDR and young girl.

 According to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp (RIOC):

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 17th, Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) and the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA) plan to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the unveiling of the FDR Hope Memorial, an immersive work of art commemorating the progressive former U.S. president and disability advocate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Join us at Southpoint Park for the celebratory ribbon-cutting. Attendees able to utilize grass areas surrounding the memorial will be asked to do so. Special accommodations can be made, onsite, upon request for those who require them. The event will start promptly at 12:00pm.

There is a long 12 year history leading up to tomorrow's FDR Hope unveiling.

RIDA President Wendy Hersh spoke briefly about the fight and struggles to get a memorial depicting President Roosevelt  sitting in his wheelchair built on Roosevelt Island during a portion of this interview with the CUNY TV program Diverse City.

Starting in 2009, the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA) and a group of local supporters began a campaign to build a memorial to President Franklin D Roosevelt depicting him as he lived, sitting in a wheelchair. The campaign was initiated upon learning that the proposed FDR 4 Freedoms Park designed by architect Louis Kahn ignored the fact that FDR was a disabled person. As reported in February 2009:

... the proposed Kahn/FDR memorial also fails to acknowledge FDR as a man and a President of the United States who achieved greatness despite a disability that forced him into a wheelchair. The absence, in any meaningful way, of FDR's use of a wheelchair or crutches is particularly shameful given the large disabled and handicapped community at Roosevelt Island's Coler-Goldwater Hospital complex.

A similar controversy arose at the FDR Memorial in Washington DC....

... A great idea for an appropriate and honorable FDR Memorial on Roosevelt Island was suggested by Roosevelt Island's Doctor Jack Resnick who treats many of our disabled residents.

Somebody designed a memorial to FDR on Roosevelt Island that completely ignored the man’s physical disability. Franklin Roosevelt spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair. The polio virus, which infected him in 1921 at the age of 39, left him with almost no use of his legs. Twelve years later he became President of the United States. He went on to save the country from economic calamity and the world from Hitler....

...Roosevelt Island is a living, breathing memorial to FDR. And when we celebrated FDR Day here each year, it was clear that we were focused on FDR as an icon for the disabled.

The FDR Memorial on this Island should focus on the President’s strength in conquering his disability. Many possibilities come to mind. For instance, he should not be memorialized with a bust. We should see a greater-than-life-sized statue of him sitting in a wheelchair – and he should face north toward Goldwater and Coler Hospitals...

Shortly thereafter,  in response to my inquiry, the RIDA Board Of Directors including then President Virginia Granato, Jim Bates, Nancy Brown and Gloria Narduzzo 

issued this statement:

On behalf of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association and it's many disabled members we want to voice our opposition to a glaring deficit in the current proposal for the FDR Memorial to be built at the Southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

President Roosevelt was disabled by Polio before he was elected President of the United States and used a wheelchair almost exclusively. A statue of President Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair or standing with the help of his crutches would be most appropriate here on an Island where many disabled people reside, both in apartments and in the two chronic care hospitals. In the same manner that our first black president, Barack Obama, has inspired so many school- aged black children to aspire to higher achievements, once thought to be impossible, such a memorial would have the same effect on the disabled community when viewing a statue of one of our most beloved presidents and realizing that he, too, was disabled and was able to overcome his disability and be elected to the highest office in the country. What an inspiration that would be for the multitude of disabled visitors, especially our wheelchair bound war veterans returning from Iraq, to visualize that despite their disability anything is possible. The memorial, as shown in the artist's sketches. does not portray FDR as disabled and we feel that this is an injustice to us all. It is said that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In this instance, a statue of FDR depicted as our first disabled President would speak volumes to the millions of visitors, disabled and non-disabled who will be visiting The FDR Memorial for generations to come.

Roosevelt Island Disabled Association Board of Directors and it's members

RIDA members also protested against the failure to include representation of FDR's disability at Roosevelt Island public meetings regarding the FDR 4 Freedoms Park.

Image From Main Street Wire

The Roosevelt Island Residents Association supported RIDA's efforts:

... WHEREAS the continued resident population of Roosevelt Island, uniquely composed in significant part of many disabled persons, residing both independently in apartments or within the two chronic care hospitals located on the island, renders a true portrayal of President Roosevelt more meaningful and poignant on Roosevelt Island than any in any other location; and

THEREFORE, NOW BE IT RESOLVED that the Roosevelt Island Residents Association supports a plan for the Four Freedoms Park that includes a celebration of President Roosevelt as a disabled person by depicting him in a wheelchair or on crutches.

-Adopted by the Common Council of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association 6/3/09...

Following these protests, in June 2009, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, chair of the FDR 4 Freedoms Park sent a letter to RIDA offering to help in their efforts to recognize FDR as a disabled person. He wrote:

The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute greatly appreciates the interest of the Roosevelt Island disabled community regarding the Four Freedoms Park which is to be built on Southpoint. Those who took the trouble to come to the recent meeting are absolutely right – we must find a way to tell our universal audience of FDR’s disability and the important role it played in his greatness as President of the United States. I never give a speech about FDR without telling the story of his disability....

... Somehow we must find a way to convey this incredible story to those who visit Southpoint. Building on our initial meeting, we will work with representatives of Roosevelt Island to achieve that objective. We are grateful to Virginia Granato and Dr. Resnick for their effective presentation. Our task is to work together to find a way to accomplish our mutual purpose, honoring a great President and remembering the qualities of character that enabled him to lead our country so well.

Ambassador vanden Heuvel and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute did help RIDA by securing the first $100 thousand donation and  have been working together since to bring  the FDR Hope Memorial to Roosevelt Island.

Jim Bates became President of RIDA after Virginia Granato stepped down. "Uncle" Jim established the FDR Hope Memorial Committee and became a tireless advocate for the FDR Hope Memorial working with RIOC to find a location site in Southpoint Park, fundraising and selecting the sculptor, Meredith Bergmann, to design and build the FDR Hope Memorial

There were setbacks and delays but at all times Uncle Jim with the help of local resident Marc Diamond and other members of the FDR Hope Memorial Committee persevered. In 2012 sculptor Meredith Bergmann presented a mock up of the sculpture to the Committee.

The design originally included a representation of FDR's desk but that was not included in final version due to cost cutbacks.

In 2015, Roosevelt Island NY State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright visited Southpoint Park to announce a $150 thousand anonymous gift donation for the FDR Hope Memorial.

"Uncle" Jim Bates added:

... Hopefully this will inspire people around the world and challenge the disabled community that they are an enabled community and they can be whatever they choose to be.

Virginia Granato spoke about her feelings that day too.

There were more delays and difficulties for the FDR Hope Memorial but in 2019, RIOC, under former President Susan Rosenthal took control of funding the project to completion and finally opening to the public tomorrow.

Image From FDR Hope Memorial

It is sad that both "Uncle" Jim Bates and Virginia Granato passed away before they could see the unveiling of the FDR Hope Memorial tomorrow but their vision of "enabled, not disabled" was continued by current RIDA President Wendy Hersh and will live on and inspire others who visit the FDR Hope Memorial in the days to come.

For disclosure purposes, I am a member of the FDR Hope Memorial Committee.

Here's RIOC press release.

UPDATE 7/17 - FDR Hope Memorial Ribbon Cutting Ceremony today.

Roosevelt Island photographer Irina Hage shares these pictures 

from today's FDR Hope Memorial Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.