Adams revives public art initiative honoring 5 influential NYC women

historic photo of Billie Holiday, who will be honored in a public art initiative honoring influential NYC women, singing into a microphone on stage
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

Saving lives at sea. Advocating for women’s rights. Breaking barriers in the music industry. These are just some of the historic accomplishments New York City women have made over the years. As Women’s History Month wraps up, Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday he will resume a public art initiative that honors influential NYC women who have made significant contributions to the city and the world.

The project — dubbed She Built NYC — launched in March 2019 but was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the initiative, the city will commission five public monuments — one for each borough— to honor women and their influential impact on NYC.

Adams, along with NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo announced that the project will resume with an open call for artists to design the monuments.

She Built NYC was launched to address the “underrepresentation of women” in the city’s public art collection. Across NYC’s 150 public monuments honoring historical figures, only eight are women, city officials said. 

“As we close out Women’s History Month, we remember that every day is an opportunity to celebrate the women who have led and built New York City into the greatest city in the world,” Adams said. “These extraordinary women saved lives, challenged racial and gender barriers, and overcame all odds to become leaders in each of their respective fields. Today, I’m proud that their legacy will forever be enshrined through public monuments across the five boroughs open to all New Yorkers to see, learn, and understand their impact on our city.” 

Among the notable women to be included in the initiative are jazz great, Billie Holiday, and Shirley Chisholm, a New York politician and advocate of the Equal Right Amendment in 1972.

According to the city, Adams worked with community partners as well as other city officials including those from the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA)  to identify locations tied to the women being honored. 

The initiative is in its early stages so it is not known yet when the art will be ready to view. 

The monuments will be commissioned through DCLA’s Percent for Art, a city program where 1% of the agency’s budget is spent on public art. 

Influential NYC women: Who will be honored in She Built NYC?

The city provided the following information on the five women who will be honored in each borough:

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) – Manhattan

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to serve in Congress. The Adams administration announced a milestone on this first of the five monuments, honoring Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in July 2023, when it received unanimous approval from the city’s Public Design Commission. 

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías (1929-2001) – Bronx  

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías was a pioneer in reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS care and prevention. Dr. Rodríguez Trías’ work often advocated on behalf of women and children, especially those in poor and minority communities. She became the medical director of the New York state Department of Health’s AIDS Institute and the first Latinx director of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Rodríguez Trías was a recipient of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV/AIDS, and the poor. Among her greatest legacies are shaping regulations that govern informed content for sterilizations and empowering low-income and minority women through the women’s health movement.  

The Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías Monument will be built in a public-facing area at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, where she was the head of the hospital’s pediatrics department and advocated for better medical care for the communities of color that the institution served. 

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827–1901) – Manhattan  

Elizabeth Jennings Graham challenged racial segregation a century before the modern civil rights movement. On July 16, 1854, the 24-year-old schoolteacher boarded a streetcar at the intersection of Pearl and Chatham Streets, on what is now Park Row, that did not accept African Americans as passengers. When the conductor confronted her, she refused to leave until forcibly removed by the police. The city’s African American community was outraged by the incident, and Graham sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company, the conductor, and the driver. The judge ruled in her favor, holding that “a colored person…had the same rights as others.” In addition to winning $225 in damages, Jennings’ case took the first step toward ending transit segregation in New York City. By 1860, all of the city’s streetcar lines were open to African Americans because of her efforts. In her later years, Jennings continued to teach, helping to start the first kindergarten in the city for Black children. 

The Elizabeth Jennings Graham Monument will be built near the route of the streetcar journey on which she made her courageous stand. 

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) – Queens  

Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, “Billie” Holiday is one of the most celebrated jazz singers of all time. Her career helped to define New York as the emerging jazz scene, and she challenged racial barriers, becoming the first Black women to sing with a white orchestra. Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” — a powerful protest song about lynching — was named by Time Magazine as “the song of the century.” Her career was recognized with a dozen Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

The Billie Holiday Monument will be built at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, near the clubs she performed in and the neighborhood she called home. 

Katherine Walker (1838-1931) – Staten Island  

Katherine Walker was the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse in Staten Island for 35 years. She is credited with saving the lives of at least 50 people and maintaining the light that guided countless ships to safe passage through Kill Van Kull, the shipping channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. One of the few female lighthouse keepers in U.S. history, she broke barriers in a male-dominated field and raised her two children at the lighthouse, rowing them back and forth to attend school on Staten Island. Walker’s story sheds light on the largely untold history of women working in New York City’s maritime industry.  

The Katherine Walker Monument will be included in the ongoing development planned for Staten Island’s North Shore being spearheaded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.