Placing a statue of 19th-century abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass in front of the Niagara Falls court and police headquarters seemed fitting — to some.
"It's a courthouse," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. Douglass "fought for equal justice under the law for everyone."
But the proposed location struck others as tone-deaf.
"Being that African-Americans, black and brown men, are the majority the population in prisons and jail cells today, it's just not a good look," said Donta Myles, a 39-year-old industrial worker who spoke against the location at a recent City Council meeting. "It's not a good message to send, to place his statue right smack-dab in front of a police station. It's not smart."
Douglass had to travel to Ireland a few years after escaping slavery to avoid being captured by police and returned to bondage, said Myles, who is black. A statue in front of a police station seemed wrong to him.
"Placing it in front of a police station — at first, a lot of us thought that was a joke," Myles said. "We understand what he went through and how he had to flee the country to get away from law enforcement back in that day."
The City Council last week voted 4-1 to reject — for a variety of reasons — a plan to spend $280,000 in Niagara River Greenway funds on the statue.
Councilman Ezra P. Scott Jr., the Council's only black member, called the location poorly chosen.
"Some individuals think what Frederick Douglass represented didn't line up exactly with putting it in front of the police station," Scott said. "I personally didn't think it was the best place."
Open to new location
Dyster, the city's white mayor, said the project has been on the drawing board so long that he doesn't recall who chose the site in the plaza in front of the police and court building at 1925 Main St.
It's less than a block from a Congregationalist church on Cleveland Avenue, where Douglass is believed by some researchers to have spoken during his career of pre-Civil War anti-slavery agitation.
The Douglass statue could be placed elsewhere, like at a parcel at Main and Cleveland owned by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority. Or it could be put on a city-owned lot next to the church, Dyster said.
"We're not going to be stubborn or pigheaded about a new location," Dyster said.
Dyster acknowledged that opposition to the statue in front of the municipal complex "maybe goes off tensions between the police and the African-American community in general."
"The conversation around the criminal justice system treating African-Americans equally has been a very sensitive topic," Scott said.
"You have items like the scofflaw reform legislation that I am working on to help give individuals of lower incomes the opportunity to not get entangled in the criminal justice system. You also have bail reform that's looking to create an alternative to holding low-risk people behind bars because they can't afford bail. The individuals of low income that can't afford to free to free themselves of the criminal justice system are often African-Americans," Scott said.
William Bradberry, chairman of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center and a former city administrator, said when he was in city office, the police and courts building was designed to include a Douglass statue.
"It's for a plaza or a pocket park that was originally planned for what we call the courthouse," said Bradberry, who is black. "Because of such poor relations between the police and the African-American community, it's become known as the police station."
The statue fell victim to budget cuts resulting from an environmental cleanup at the building site, which caused major cost overruns, Bradberry said.
"I don't have any objection to putting Douglass in another appropriate place," Bradberry said.
Scott likes the idea of the statue itself.
"I think it would have been an awesome project to tell of Niagara Falls' rich history," he said.
A better site would be near the Underground Railroad Heritage Center, scheduled to open May 4, a few blocks north of the police and court building, Scott said.
"I think a closer location to the Underground Railroad museum will help the two compliment each other for marketing purpoises and attract more tourists bringing in revenue," Scott said.
A monument to black slave rescuer Harriet Tubman is planned at the museum, Dyster said. The mayor said the early thinking was to keep the Douglass site separate from the Tubman monument "to get people to move around the neighborhood."
Susan Geissler, a Youngstown sculptor who was being considered for the work, said the $280,000 would have paid for a life-size statue of Douglass.
Myles, the Falls resident, said the money could be better spent on plans for a new community center in the city's North End, for which he and other citizens have been seeking support. Still, a Frederick Douglass statue might improve the city's track record on public art, he said.
"You spent $619,000 on a piece of scrap metal on First Street," he said, referring to a largely Greenway-funded abstract piece installed in December on a downtown roundabout.
It wasn't just the statue the Council voted against last week. Another Greenway proposal was defeated, too.
The Council voted 4-1 against a $200,000 request to fund an outdoor ice skating rink in a parking lot at 114 Buffalo Ave., in front of the old Hotel Niagara. Chairman Andrew P. Touma said the Council objected to a lack of input on the selection of Greenway projects.
Resolutions backing $200,000 each in Greenway funds for improvements in Jayne and 91st Street parks squeaked through on 3-2 votes.
Councilman Christopher P. Voccio said he heard complaints from some black residents about the statue's location. To opponents, the "optics" of the location look bad, Voccio said, adding he had other reasons to oppose the plan.
The four projects on the agenda would have wiped out this year's Greenway allocation for the city and cut into next year's.
"There were multiple black people who spoke out against the site because associating Frederick Douglass with Public Safety might raise some objections. It wasn't my concern," Voccio said. "I'm a finance guy, and adding up all these numbers didn't make a lot of sense.
"It's mid-March," Voccio said. "What if in June someone comes up with a fantastic project better than any of them?"