Remembering together

Remembering together

Architects unveil proposals for Teaneck’s ‘Garden of Human Understanding’

Architect Rodney Leon’s rendering of the Enslaved African Memorial. It will share space on the green in front of the Teaneck library with Alan Hantman’s memorial to the Holocaust.
Architect Rodney Leon’s rendering of the Enslaved African Memorial. It will share space on the green in front of the Teaneck library with Alan Hantman’s memorial to the Holocaust.

State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck is proud to be “grandmothering” the proposed “Garden of Human Understanding,” which will memorialize the Holocaust and African slavery in the green in front of the Teaneck municipal complex.

Ms. Weinberg was among the speakers last month at a meeting at the Teaneck library, where architects for the two memorials and for associated improvements to the library showed off their designs.

The meeting was sponsored by a $5,000 grant from the New Jersey Council of Humanities, which Ms. Weinberg had helped obtain.

“The State of New Jersey was impressed” with the “unique” plans to combine the two memorials, Ms. Weinberg said; those plans reflects the uniqueness of Teaneck.

Anita Bakshi, who earned a doctorate in architecture from Cambridge, teaches in the department of landscape architecture at Rutgers. She researches “new forms for monuments, memorials, and other commemorative structures,” and has written about how the competing Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus handle monuments in Nicosia.

“There are several things that are unique” about the planned Teaneck memorials, Dr. Bakshi told the meeting.

“The first is the matter of putting these two histories in communication with each other, the history of the Holocaust and the history of enslavement of African people in the United States,” she said. “These histories are connected in terms of prejudice, exclusion, and diaspora, and also resilience, survival, and continuity. It’s important to communicate that message of hope and continuity.”

The two memorials, on either side of the path leading up to the town hall, will be “a place of communication,” she said.

Dr. Bakshi said that some critics of memorials say that “they’re connected with forgetting. We build the memorial and move on.” Others, she said, argue that “memorials can fade into the background. You have plaques everywhere. You have statues. People don’t notice them over time. ‘Nothing is as invisible as a monument,’ an Austrian novelist wrote.”

But she disagrees with those criticisms. “These memorials have a very powerful potential,” she said. “They are spaces people will move through. They tell us we are here, our histories happened.”

Dr. Bakshi said she will work with two former students to develop ideas to better connect the two memorials, which have been designed separately.

The plans for memorials in front of the Teaneck library come as the state has made money available for libraries to renovate. The Teaneck library has hired an architect, Anthony Iovino, to plan the renovations of the library, which would play a role as an educational adjunct to the two planned memorials.

“The library being on the municipal green is a terrific natural fit,” Mr. Iovino said.

The plans he showed featured a glass-walled meeting space for the groups that come to visit the memorials. “It would be a place to sit together and talk where you don’t have to worry about being shushed,” he said. “It’s a space we can embellish with technology.”

The Enslaved African Memorial will illustrate the history of slavery in Bergen County.

Computers and interactive displays would enable visitors to learn more about the Holocaust and slavery. A display case would show memorabilia, “things that trigger thoughts and emotions not just for the garden, but for the community.”

Rodney Leon discussed his plans for the memorial to African slavery. Mr. Leon has designed two memorials to slavery in Manhattan: one at the United Nations, memorializing the African slave trade, and the other in Lower Manhattan, at the site of an 18th century African burial ground.

He talked about how it important it is to remember the past as we face the future.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he said, quoting philosopher George Santayana. “It seems as though our society is constantly in danger of forgetting the lesson. Every day you just need to turn on the TV and you are tragically reminded of the fragility of our institutions.

“It is critical for people of goodwill to act collectively and form institutions in resistance to the forces of fear, intolerance, and hate,” Mr. Leon said. Teaneck’s pairing of the memorials of two communities “shall serve as an inspiration and example of how communities can come together and act collectively in the spirit of peace, love, and humanity.”

Mr. Leon displayed a design for his memorial, which aims to commemorate “the African civilization and culture’s impact upon humanity; the resilience of those who experienced the horrors of the Middle Passage; the history of slavery in Bergen County; and the resistance to enslavement.”

New Jersey did not stop slaves from entering the state until 1788 and did not begin the gradual process of emancipation until 1804; the state’s last 16 slaves were freed in 1865.

Alan Hantman, who was the official architect for the U.S. Capitol complex in Washington D.C., from 1997 to 2007, is designing the Holocaust memorial.

“What drew me to the project is the concept of having different segments of the community coming together in the municipal green,” he said. “The key part is we need the opportunity to learn from each other, to learn about the other. We can all learn from each other’s history. My dream is that they will be connected, that somebody who visits one will take the opportunity to visit the other.”

He said he hopes the memorials “will whet the appetite for further learning by people so they can come into the library and learn so much more.

“We’re not trying to create a new museum here. What we envision is a series of essential questions.”

Mr. Hantman said there are three financial hurdles to be cleared before the projects can be completed.

“One is the construction,” he said. “The second is the educational component — what does it cost us to get experts together to have them develop the information for the display and syllabus for the inside of the library? And the third is an annuity to help maintain, update, and enrich the memorial. We expect the construction portion of the Holocaust memorial should be no more than $2 million. The educational component may be more, and the annuity more too.”

Assume a similar amount for the memorial to enslaved Africans, and you’re looking at more than $12 million.

“We will be developing a joint grant proposal,” Mr. Hantman said. “It will go out to foundations and corporations for major funding to realize this dream.”

“Whatever it costs,” Dr. Henry Pruitt, a member of the Teaneck council, said, “It’s such a unique idea, I’m sure it will find the money. It puts Teaneck on the map.”

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