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On February 1, Andrew Yang — the New York author, entrepreneur, nonprofiteer, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate now running for New York City mayor — tweeted that the official flag of his adopted city, a flag that has iconically flown over the New York skyline since 1915, should be offhandedly retired and replaced with a less “old” design.
“The colors are based on the Dutch Prince’s flag. . . . The seal is old,” Yang asserted, referring to the official NYC seal borne by the flag.
“Corey Johnson [speaker of the NYC Council] proposed having a new flag designed by artists in New York as a symbol of civic pride,” Yang declared — and Yang apparently agrees with him: “I like the idea of a more modern flag for NYC.” In Mr. Yang’s philosophy, longevity is evidently no sign of success.
Forget the flag design for a moment. Why the worry about the flag’s age? New York City itself was first settled in 1624 and is, therefore, centuries older than the flag Yang thinks is too geriatric to represent it. Should New York City, or New York State itself, therefore be abolished? Surely not. Oldness qua oldness is not an argument against the NYC banner. Yang needs a better argument to convince New York to abolish the iconic flag designed by the 1915 mayor’s committee.
So enough with mere age as an argument. What of the flag itself? Should New York City’s banner be cast into the dustbin of history?
Before June 1915, New York City had no official flag, and used, on an ad hoc basis, an unofficial white banner bearing the city seal. “Up to the present time,” as reported in Seal and Flag of the City of New York (published in 1915), “the City of New York has never possessed an official flag in any true sense of the term.” Mayor John Purroy Mitchel appointed a citizen-led committee to produce an official flag and to introduce a historically informed, standardized version of the city seal. The occasion was the 250th anniversary of the installation of the first mayor and board of aldermen of the City of New York in 1665, marking the beginning of “New York City” under the English and the end of Dutch rule over New Amsterdam — aside from a period in 1673–74 when the Netherlands regained control. The blue-white-orange tricolor produced by the mayor’s committee and approved by the city aldermen in 1915 was a smashing victory of design, and has flown proudly and distinctively over New York’s skyline for the last 105 years. The city flag and the seal that it bears combine the colors of the Dutch Republic’s flag with a “distinctively American” eagle crest on the city’s English-style arms, creating a bold emblem that unmistakably represents New York and its past. The flag was intended to showcase the identity and genesis of a fiercely proud American city. It was consciously created to evoke the heritage and history of New York and of New Amsterdam before it. The apparent “oldness” of the emblem is intentional, not accidental. But it appears that all this history is lost on today’s anti-flag crowd.
The design coup of the New York City flag is that it succeeds as a bold and energetic-looking symbol in a way that is in fact fostered, not obscured, by its roots in the past. It also has the official bearing necessary for a city such as New York. While modern flag designers often criticize the practice of putting seals on flags, if any design were an exception to this rule, the NYC flag would be it. The design works, and has for 105 years. Why punish this flag for its success?
The same can be said of the design of the seal itself. When introducing their version of the city seal to the board of aldermen for approval, the 1915 Art Committee answered an expected criticism of the design. The committee’s response anticipated the complaints made by Yang over a century later: “It is in no sense a new design,” John B. Pine of the official Art Committee said, “and any criticism that it is not beautiful or that it does not meet heraldic requirements is irrelevant.” He added,
No doubt, a more beautiful seal could be designed, but we regard it as of far more importance to perpetuate the seal which was adopted by the Common Council in 1686 and which ever since that date has been used by the City but with slight modification as the symbol of its corporate entity.
(These words are found in the above-mentioned book, Seal and Flag of the City of New York. As it happens, John B. Pine himself edited the handsomely bound volume, which was officially authorized by the mayor’s seal and flag committee. It is a great read for anyone interested in the history of Gotham’s civic symbols. One can find it both at the NYC Public Library and online. It gives an in-depth background of the city’s emblems and brand-new official flag. Fittingly, it is bound in the blue and orange tinctures of the city flag. Evidently, the publisher did not share Yang’s qualms about the “Dutch Prince’s” colors.)
Anyone concerned that the seal on the city flag is “old” has missed the boat with his concern by a good hundred years. The seal was already of venerable age in 1915, when the art committee and aldermen enthusiastically affixed it to the new Gotham tricolor. Far from deficient in civic pride, the flag was meant from the start to be a grand, civic-minded project that would foster pride in a great American city. Citizen-artists already designed the current flag, so retiring it would achieve nothing but to obscure their work. It would create the same wrong that a “new flag” would supposedly remedy. This suggests that those opposed to the flag do not understand its history, and view it as fair game to create excitement and novelty for a civic pet project.
Finally, New York City is far from the only city or county that features the old Dutch, New Amsterdam colors. I am a lifelong resident of Dutchess County, New York, which draws from this aesthetic as well. But at least the NYC flag incorporates the Dutch colors in upright bars. With its orange-white-blue horizontal tricolor, the Dutchess County flag is an exact reproduction of the Dutch Prinsenvlag, distinguished only by the county seal. Ulster County is in the same predicament, as is Albany, the capital of New York State. Yang’s home county of Westchester, fittingly enough, also conspicuously bears the Dutch kleuren on its flag.
Americans have stubbornly showcased their heritage through civic symbols throughout the nation’s history. Before sounding another flat-noted judgment on a classic American emblem like the NYC flag, Mr. Yang and his anti-flag allies should recognize that fact. After all, the American flag itself bears the title “Old Glory” — and not as an insult.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its original publication.