I stopped by City Hall on Thursday morning to check out claims I had heard that the stones making up the labyrinth which was built by community volunteers back in 2013 on the side lawn were being removed. When I got there, I discovered that indeed, a good eighth or tenth of the stones had been dug up and were missing.
I talked with Mayor Michael Villa this morning about why the stones were being removed. He said he had instructed city workers to remove the labyrinth because “I don’t feel it belongs there.” In his view, the labyrinth does not fit the historical character of the building.
I asked him if there were any religious or conscientious reasons for removing the labyrinth and he said no. He also said that the extra amount of time it took to maintain the lawn because of the stones was also not a factor. However he did say that the time it’s taking city workers to remove the stones would be offset by a savings in maintenance time in the future.
He also said the removal of the stones had nothing to do with former mayor Ann Thane. “If former mayor] Joe Emmanuel put it in, I’d still remove it,” Villa said.
The way I see it, the issue here is not whether Villa has the authority to remove it or not. Villa acknowledged that Thane acted within her authority to allow the construction, and asserted that he is within his authority to remove it. I don’t have any argument there.
The issue, in my view, is how this action benefits the city. I find Villa’s justification rather arbitrary. It’s hard for me to see how an arrangement of stones on an otherwise unused side lawn significantly affects the historical character of the grounds. Villa says his priority is the city’s finances and blight situation. However, the removal must have been a top priority for him given that he has ordered the action during the very first week of his term as mayor.
The effect of the action, as far as I can see from the conversation on social media, has been to inflame Amsterdam’s artistic and volunteer community, especially those who volunteered their time and effort to create the labyrinth for the entire community to enjoy. To order it’s destruction without even talking with the volunteers who built it strikes me as callous.
One of the things I liked about what Villa said during his very first interview with me back in December 2014, was how he hoped to help the city work together better. He cited his experience as a former police officer and talked about how he routinely had to settle disputes and de-fuse arguments in the field. In a city with such long-held and deep divisions, I wish Villa would start using those skills in this very situation. The removal of public artwork like this was not part of his campaign platform and I hardly think that was what people who voted for him expected.
Removing the labyrinth does nothing to benefit the city. However, Villa has everything to gain by stopping the removal and reaching out to meet with the original volunteers. If Villa has a different vision for the grounds of city hall, maybe those same volunteers can be a part of the transformation. In these formative first weeks in office, Villa still has a chance to win over new allies, rather than create even more hard feelings over an issue that amounts to a personal preference.