Category Archives: America

Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Sculpture and our Heritage of Hate

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Newspaper clipping from The Daily Progress, May 21st, 1924 (University of Virginia Library)

Once upon a time, American monuments felt innocuous.  They sat quietly in parks and squares, repositories for bird droppings and cans of cheap beer.  Their stone bases worn from the sandblasting of cheapjack graffiti and chipped from years of nicks from riding lawnmowers.  Noses of erstwhile political figures were playfully burnished.  That time of unknowledgeable innocence is gone.

Like ideas and people, monuments too, can be radicalized.  It is expected that the meaning behind symbols changes with the times, yet it is easy to forget when our lives have been lived among them, whether in blissful ignorance or somber reverence.  Many Americans view monuments as parts of history we should not and can not change, particularly in terms of altering or removing statues and memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers, battles, or military generals and political leaders.  Monuments of architectural significance have been venerated locally and nationally, as well as celebrated culturally, yet it took a series of catastrophic tragedies to put into focus that their context was always incorrect.

The General Robert Edward Lee Statue is located in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park), bounded by Market Street, Jefferson Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The statue is one of four works commissioned from members of the National Sculpture Society by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, located on parks McIntire gave to the City of Charlottesville during the years 1919 to 1924.  According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the monument, McIntire “wished to make a place worthy of the likeness of the most distinguished Confederate general.”

The monument, cast in bronze, was conceived by American sculptor Henry Shrady and executed by Leo Lentelli after Shrady’s death.  It depicts Lee astride on his horse Traveller.  The National Register of Historic Places nomination, written in 1996, depicts the statue as such:

“Lentelli has made a large and important Traveller.  The horse is depicted at a brisk walk with his proper left front leg extended forward and his proper right hind leg elevated.  His regal tail is arched out behind his body to show his impatience while Lee reins him in.  Lee has Traveller well in hand, but the horses neck is overbent and his mouth is open as he pulls against the bit.”

A small number of living confederate veterans as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were present for the May 21st, 1924 unveiling of the statue.  Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, the great-granddaughter of General Lee, pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, triggering cheers from the crowd.  The National Register nomination continues:

“Thus, the Robert Edward Lee sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location.  Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”

The Robert E. Lee sculpture was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 after its addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996.  The narrative presented in the National Register nomination gives scant information on Lee, but it does tilt towards the idea that the Confederate cause was a noble one.

Most historical descriptions of Confederate monuments in official documents, like a National Register nomination, present their significance in neutral terms, as art works by significant sculptors or components of a landscape or planning movement, having no interaction with the cultural context the monument was constructed in or the cultural context that existed when the monument was written.  Narratives keep in line with the established period of significance of a historic resource, but this timeline will never be finite.  Context changes over time as cultural changes occur, and as we learn.

That noble cause in 1861, at the succession of the Confederacy from the rest of the United States, included the unlawful abolition of slavery and the prohibition of voting rights for anyone born outside of the Confederacy.  How do these provisions, taken directly from the Confederate Constitution, relate to a contemporary perspective to keep Confederate culture intact?  How do organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, who are at the center of a court case fighting against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue with the City of Charlottesville, balance a culture with a core of oppression against the realities of a future of inclusion?

The majority of monuments to the Confederate cause were not erected during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but well after, into the 20th century, when even the oldest, healthiest Confederate veterans were rare.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

In an attempt to stave off the impending threat of equal rights, work was done to control the historical interpretation of the Civil War and present it as a noble cause and to push the Confederacy as a cultural concept while presenting Confederate icons as an honorable ideal.

Out of these eras of recognition of the bravery of the Southern cause came monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others as celebrations of valor and faith.  Confederate generals were exalted as intellectuals and sages, depicted nobly atop their horses and at parade rest, cast in bronze beside compassionate angels.  These monuments were placed in town squares and city parks, and presented as objects of remembrance towards a cause that was lost, but also noble.  Those that nostalgized the old days of Dixie now had the iconography to remind them that while the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights had politically stifled their ideas of a single race state, it could never be culturally stifled.  Black people were not so subtly reminded that they had their place.

Although a public park, the landscape surrounding the Lee sculpture retained a reputation as segregated for decades, consistent with Paul Goodloe McIntire’s terms of deed for other racially segregated parks he donated to Charlottesville.  Along with their support for the Lee statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned to build a monument to the myth of the nurturing, benevolent Southern mammy.  The monument was authorized by the U.S. Senate in 1923 but died in Congress after months of protests, including the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veteran’s organization, which called it a “sickly sentimental proposition.”

Confederate monuments were never innocent, never static and never simply material objects.  They were always symbols of intimidation, manipulated as cultural heritage and works of art, and silently used to perpetuate the myth that 20th and 21st century Confederalism is cultural and familial, and not innately discriminatory.  They are propaganda, not cultural heritage, and they have served, for decades, to provide something to hide behind that has more decorum than a white robe.

 

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The Man Mound: A Transformative National Historic Landmark

 

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Aerial View of the Man Mound after the spring “burnoff” of dead prairie grass, 2014.  Image via Sauk County Eagle.

Deep in the rolling hills of the northern flanks of the Baraboo Range, and about two miles northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin, lies an ancient and mysterious earthen figure, cut off at the shins. An amputee.

The Man Mound of Greenfield is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America.  It was formed of earth between 700 and 1000 AD by the Late Woodland effigy mound builders, who constructed both humanoid and zoomorphic mounds across the eastern and middle western portions of what is now the United States.  Until the turn of the 20th century, Sauk County had as many as twelve humanoid mounds, with hundreds of others depicting birds, snakes and other animals.  Despite early recognition by surveyors of these earthworks as special monuments, almost 75% of the mounds previously identified have disappeared.

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Looking north towards Man Mound’s “horns.”  Despite the snow cover, the rise above grade is clearly visible.  Mowing of the mound ceased in 2008, attributing to an array of prairie grasses and flora seeding from it, including ferns not native to Wisconsin.

Not long after measurements of the Man Mound were taken and the mound was brought to wider public attention by civil engineer and naturalist Increase A. Lapham, an east-west road was cut below the figure’s knees, detaching the body from the feet, an unmistakably adverse effect that would be inconceivable today, and illegal in terms of federal and state laws regarding the mound’s historic and cultural status.  But this was the Midwest in the 1860s, less than a lifetime after the Indian Removal Act, and the center of a century where transportation routes and the opening of government lands pushed non-native people westward.  Immigrants of German and Irish decent were coming by ship, steamboat, railroad and then in wagons through the Baraboo Valley.  Thirty years prior to the construction of Man Mound Road, Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of Wisconsin.  The name of the road has a deeply disquieting effect, as if the mistake was acknowledged as soon as the road was laid.

The Man Mound is a transformative being, a curiosity of the Lower World, a primordial deity, a water spirit, a bear, or a rabbit, or any of these things.  And to native peoples like the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lay claim to the Late Woodland effigy mound builders as parent stock, a symbol of renewal.  In 1908, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, along with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and The Sauk County Historical Society moved to acquire the Man Mound Site, establishing it as one of the first archaeological sites preserved specifically for preservation purposes.  This purchase occurred in the nick of time, as the previous land owner had disclosed that he was looking into cultivating the site.  Man Mound Park was dedicated on August 8th, 1908.

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Historical marker erected by the Sauk County Historical Committee, 1969, alongside the Wisconsin Historical Societies’ plaque from the 1908 park dedication.  The Man Mound’s torso and right arm are visible in the background.

While the dedication of the park did include an invocation of indigenous peoples, accounts of that day paint a woefully misguided picture of appropriation as appreciation, showing a version of the disconnection between Americans and native peoples that we see today, from feathered headdresses at Coachella to the Washington Redskins to referring to a work meeting as a pow-wow.  Native Americans were not considered a part of the 20th century narrative of the Man Mound, and were instead relegated to a cultural footnote during the celebration-tipis, wampum and all.

Detached from the rest of the body, the feet were now located in a cow pasture on the other side of Man Mound Road, and would over time get trampled down to grade. Even without legs, which is certainly an integrity problem for the ages, Man Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Rob Nurre is a landscape historian and longtime steward of the Man Mound who has come to live “seventeen man mound-sized steps away from the park.”  With the 100th anniversary of the park looming, Nurre began thinking about the Man Mound’s amputated legs and feet, along with ways to raise public awareness for the site.  Using measured drawings from the 1850s and a can of white paint, Nurre gave Man Mound new prosthetic limbs stretching across the road, and worked with the land owners north of the road to mark off the area where the feet once stood.

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The Man Mound’s “ghost legs” stretch across Man Mound Road.

“How do we best care for these sites,” asked Nurre. “When they are such a reference point in terms of how we see the world?” Perhaps the Man Mound’s painted legs are an arbitration between a careless past and a conscious, deliberate future.  They also “get in your face” Nurre said, as they clearly do not relate to roadway safety, and you’ve got to drive over them in order to get west of the mound.  Rebuilding the missing extremities from grade wouldn’t be appropriate mitigation, as it would serve to erase the lessons in stewardship and our cultural dialog with the past that the flattened legs and feet force us to interface with directly.

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The location of Man Mound’s trampled feet, fenced off from a cow pasture.

In 2016, the Man Mound was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to historic places that have a profound national significance, and are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Only 2,500 of our nations historic landmarks meet this criteria.  The boundary of the Man Mound National Historic Landmark was extended beyond the boundary of the National Register of Historic Places listing to include the area of the road containing the “legs” as well as the section of pasture where the feet once were.  The creative mitigation of modern interference is now a part of the Man Mound’s official story.

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William H. Canfield’s map of the Man Mound, 1859.  Canfield shared Man Mound’s discovery with Increase A. Lapham, and Lapham publicized the find.  Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-77567.

In 1859, Increase A. Lapham wrote that the Man Mound “is in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken.” At over 214 feet tall, Man Mound is striking when viewed from the ground, but aerial views are truly mystifying, and beg some serious questions.  Was the Man Mound meant to be viewed from the sky?  Where is it walking to?  What is the true meaning of the iconography?  We as a modern people know so little about the purpose of effigy mounds, and almost as little about their contents.  As many as 87% of effigy mounds that have been subject to archaeological investigation were used to mark or contain human burials, with most contained near a figures’ heart or inside the head.  While archaeological digs have occurred in the area where the feet once were, yielding nothing of interest, there is no record of disturbance for the rest of the body.  Digging into a cultural monument that is over a thousand years old would be a selfish, obscene choice, and would produce nothing of value.

The Man Mound will continue to yield information on our collective reference point, but by way of our understanding of what has occurred above ground, and how we weigh our current decisions against the established effects of the past and the unknown future.  So what is the best practice in terms of an effigy mound without legs, when there are no other effigy mounds with legs to compare it to?  Perhaps this is the Man Mound’s true character as a transformative being.  One that continues to learn from us as we learn from it.

The author would like to thank Rob Nurre for his generous contributions to this article.

Blaservations + Pizza Hut

A recent conversation with a friend went something like this:

E: I love Mansard Roofs.

M: What’s a Mansard Roof?

E: Think “Pizza Hut.”

Pizza Hut, Louisville, Kentucky.

Pizza Hut took a highfalutin Beaux Arts decorative feature and used it to jazz up the physical environment of almost every suburban sprawl with a hunger for pizza and a salad bar.  This is an architectural minutiae that almost everyone can understand.  Make the building look cool so people will be attracted to what’s inside (breadsticks).

Francois Mansart (1598-1666) is the father of the Pizza Hut, or Mansard, roof.  This became his specialty (toppings are extra) and years later was used to outfit Nepolian III’s Second Empire Paris, which sent the Victorians in America swooning wildly over their fainting couches in the late 19th century.

Unfortunately, the use of the Mansard as of late has left me a bit light-headed.  Paris on the Prairie or a Claes Oldenburg work entited “Sharpie Marker”?

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Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago, Illinois.

The Mysterious Architecture of Fraternal Organizations

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Masonic Lodge #272, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin

Knights of Pythias, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of the Maccabees, the Fraternal Order of the Free and Accepted Masons.  These American fraternal organizations, many with unfamiliar and almost Medieval sounding names, had memberships in the millions at the beginning of the 20th century, and had a ubiquitous presence in the social life of people across the country.  In urban areas, they served as an anchor for neighborhoods, and in small American towns, they operated as community centers for families and business owners, as well as gathering places along Main Street, hosting fish frys, rummage sales and bingo nights.  Membership in a fraternal organization was the original social network.

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Tripoli Shrine Temple, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The architecture of American fraternal organizations is one of classicism, mystery and allegory, with an occasional splash of Revivalism that brings a Mughal influence to Milwaukee and the rustic features of a Mayan temple to Aurora, Illinois.  The buildings themselves are covered in symbols and emblems, but many are meant to symbols themselves, a testament to the morality, timelessness, and brotherhood that membership in these organizations represented.  Their dedication to the intellectual development of members is obvious in their inspiration from high classical architecture, in the same way that houses of worship use the design language and iconography of antiquity to inspire the praise of a higher power.  Complex rituals and rites dictated the interior design of these buildings, and many are filled with ante-rooms and chambers for confidential communication.  In Masonic lodges, rooms had entrances for different degrees of membership, whether one was an apprentice or Master Mason, with spaces designated specifically for business, ritual or committee.

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Plan for an entered apprenticeship, from Duncan’s Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry, 1866.

In communities where vernacular buildings were the norm, fraternal organization buildings were the true stunners.  Even some of the simplest temples, housed in common two-story buildings may feature decorative columns flanking the entrance, or a hand-painted annunciator lamp covered in depictions of squares and compasses, five-pointed stars or the letter “G”, representing the role that every act is governed by geometry as well as the “Great Architect of the Universe.”

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Annunciator Lamp, Masonic Temple, Pekin, Illinois

 

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Aurora Elks Lodge No. 705, Aurora, Illinois
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Louisville Scottish Rite Temple, Louisville, Illinois
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Knights of Pythias Grand Lodge 191, Jackson, Ohio

Many temples, shrines and lodges of fraternal organizations have experienced the same problems that have befallen houses of worship in the mid and late 20th century.  With membership declining and stewardship the responsibility of an aging population, large-scale temples, like the South Side Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, no longer made sense for the Masons to continue to operate.  Constructed in 1921 and designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the South Side Masonic Temple was used as an auditorium and clubhouse through the 1950s until its ownership was transferred to the Department of Human Services.  The temple’s second life continued to serve the community until the 1980s, when the Department of Human Services relocated.  While redevelopment plans have been presented, the South Side Masonic Temple has slowly deteriorated over its thirty year period of uncertainty, leaving the physical fabric exposed to the elements and leading to numerous building code violations.  The South Side Masonic Temple was featured on Landmarks Illinois statewide endangered list in 2015 and Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago 7” most threatened buildings in 2004.

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South Side Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois

While the current state of the South Side Masonic Temple is a worse case scenario, the Logan Square Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has fared far better.  Constructed in 1923 and also designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the Logan Square Masonic Temple was sold and converted to a house of worship in the 1960s.  The Armitage Baptist Church purchased the building in 1982 and has remained there ever since.

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Former Logan Square Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, (Armitage Baptist Church)

Large urban areas have a greater percentage of adaptively reused temples and shrines, while many fraternal organizations in rural areas and small towns are still running out of buildings constructed for their exclusive use.  The role that these organizations play within a cultural landscape is largely determined by the size of the population that it serves.

The exclusivity of these organizations has made a sweeping contribution to their decreasing impact.  Women are not permitted to join most Masonic lodges, and until the 1970s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles required all members to be Caucasian.  While the architectural character of the buildings that fraternal organizations built gives them a reason to be celebrated, their legacy of selectivity and discrimination decreases the emotional significance of these buildings as they were originally intended.  A second life as a residential development, event space or house of worship allows them to serve a greater percentage of people in a community, and in many cases makes them not only viable, but neutral.

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Former Knights Templar Hall, Chicago, Illinois, now operating as a mixed-use event space.

 

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Former Masonic Temple, East Lansing Michigan, converted to a residential development.

 

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The former Eagles Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, now a concert venue.

 

 

 

Drawing Home

I’ve drawn all of the places I’ve lived.  These drawings, all done informally in ball point pen and within a small Moleskine notebook, were partially inspired by the small-scale architectural models placed in tombs of the Incas, Aztecs and their predicessors in ancient Mexico.   Their materials, just like the buildings they portray, are simple.  Buried alongside jewelry and ritual objects, these models are vital in their telling of the ordinary, everyday lives of these ancient civilizations.

This exercise also came out of a need for me to see the raw architectural data of each place that I’ve lived, and compare the design, age and typology of each.  All of the places I drew I lived for three months or longer.  These are the buildings of my ordinary life, all through the filter of my brain and hand.

I have lived in a total mixed bag of buildings, from a contemporary ranch in suburban Detroit, to a modernist highrise in Honolulu, to the ultra vernacular Chicago graystone.  These structures range greatly in age.  Many are older with a scatterbrained sense of integrity.  They have missing cornices, or cheap new windows.  Many have design features specific to their location, like the tall concrete wall surrounding the house I lived in when I worked in New Delhi, India, or the attached garage on the house in Troy.

What (and where) we call home inevitably shapes us, but architectural significance has no role in making these structures iconic.  I have borrowed time in many buildings but have possessed none of them, and my occupation of each is only a sliver of a story that spans across decades.

The most surprising revelation is poignant and timely.  These buildings display an element of undeniable privelidge, as I have always had the means to live where I have wanted.  Millions of people are not in a position to ever make that choice for themselves.

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Here Dwells No Sense of Guilt: Ideas on Reinterpreting Confederate Memorials

In 1877, New Orleanians recristened a traffic circle, known by locals as Place de Tivoli to honor Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1884, a 62 foot monument to Lee was constructed at the center of the circle, topped off with a double scaled statue of the general in bronze, arms crossed and facing north.

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.
General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.

This monument was the result of a campaign by the Children of the Confederacy, one of many organizations of its type that had emerged out of the South nearing the turn of the 20th century. Confederate organizations, like the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans were formed principally to create memorials to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, but also to assist in preserving the cultural history of Dixie that Secession and Lee’s surrender had served to tarnish. They were also not so subtile in their push for segregation. These organizations commissioned statues and memorials, and held meetings and gatherings, and at their peek had thousands of members. Patriotism towards the Confederacy was the prevalent attitude in New Orleans and all over the South.  An 1884 editorial in the Daily Picayune echoes some of the sentiment of the time: “We cannot ignore the fact that the Secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime.  By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”

In 2015 it is guilt of a different kind that has compelled the call for the removal of monuments that memorialize Confederate culture in a public setting-within parks, squares and traffic circles. Civic and religious figures as well as politicians like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu have made bold suggestions on how to reinterpret this part of our heritage. Changes to the names of streets, schools, parishes and parks from Beauregard, Stephens, Forrest and Davis have been proposed in places like Houston and Little Rock, as far north as St. Louis, and as far west as California.  Governers in South Carolina and Alabama have removed the Confederate flag from their statehouses, with more states to surely follow.

This rapid reinterpretation of Confederate symbols is perhaps the most challenging and sensitive restructuring of how we as Americans see our past, and its a been a long time coming in former slave holding states and elsewhere. A memorial to Confederate soldiers in St. Louis became a canvas to express that “Black Lives Matter,” with the anonymous individuals being branded as vandals by some and activists by others. Support has come from some unexpected places, like South Carolina Republican Paul Thurmond, who has been a strong voice in acknowledging a misalignment with history. As the son of Strom Thurmond, America’s oldest running segregationist, Paul has called for both rolling back the Confederate flag and dismantling Confederate monuments.

These monuments are a significant part of our history, but their original message does not align with our national message. But how do we separate the stately Georgian columns of a historic plantation house, or the robust carving of a statue atop a towering obelisk with the negative acts that these parts of our built world embed? Can we find a way to commemorate the past, without celebrating its brutality?

The senseless killing of parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a tragedy of almost unthinkable proportions.  Dylan Roof’s hate was fueled by the powerful words of the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South. In a photo circulating the internet, Roof poses proudly behind a Confederate flag, and the power of the stars and bars as a symbol is undeniable and hard hitting. In a reported manifesto, Roof had this to say: “We are told to accept what is happening to us because of our ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations an myths.”  In a lot of ways, Dylan is right.  Much about how we look in America’s rear-view mirror in terms of our history of oppression is based on exaggerations and myths.

Enslavement in America began when America began, with the first slaves brought over in 1619. That’s a nearly 250 year history of bondage prior to abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865. But the catch to freedom for African-Americans was a big one. Until 1964, Black people lived under the legalized oppression and institutional discrimination of Jim Crow laws in the south, and cultural oppression in places up north. Doing the math, the concept of a free America for everyone has only existed under the law for fifty years. Less than a lifetime ago, black people were told where they could live, where they could learn, where they could eat, and where they had to sit on the bus that took them there. Americans have created the myth within our culture that this is in our past, when we have left an obvious paper trail of this effect on the present. We are afraid to directly confront this history with the physical remains that represent a time where we were willing to accept that owning another human being was not only legal, but celebrated as a part of the culture. This has had a psychological impact on our thinking and behavior.

The Robert E. Lee Memorial, the Confederate flags hung in statehouses, the Antebellum tobacco plantations and the thousands of memorials throughout the country on public land that bare the names of Confederate societies are the physical remains that we have allowed to exist in an “as is” state for long enough. They are symbols of oppression, dressed with column capitals, urns and statues that we have allowed to linger under the vagaries of history, or impactful architecture. We have not reinterpreted the narratives of these objects to reflect who we are, or who we want to be. Would controlling the narrative of these physical remains have been a key in preventing the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney? Not directly, but they were not free, neither were the hundreds of minority arrestees in St. Louis County, or Americans across this country that have been affected by racism, in ways both large and small.

We are only a few generations removed from holding African-Americans in bondage, and a scant fifty years, and within recent past memory; of “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains. So what are we allowing these monuments to speak for us, when we should be telling them what to say?

Along with the calls to dismantle monuments, are numerous calls for retaining memorials. These need additional consideration, so let’s not pull Lee off his pedestal just yet.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is actively advocating for the preservation of the history and legacy of the citizen-soldiers that animated the Southern Cause, and they are working hard to keep monuments of the Confederate dead intact and the Confederate flag flying out of respect for their ancestors. For organizations such as the SCV, these symbols represent family, honor, sacrifice, and they are quick to distance themselves from the idea that these symbols are oppressive. They cite their connections with memorials as a familial or personal one. But how can these monuments continue to honor the sacrifice of dead Confederate relatives and simultaneously reminding us of our 300 year history of oppression? What is the next step? If one thing is clear, the existing story is a reminder of our folly. It has to change.

The first step in asserting our authority over the “as is” narrative of Confederate monuments might be to crowdsource ideas directly from communities, and asking questions that would lead to developing specific solutions. Who interfaces with these monuments? Do they reflect the culture of the community they are in? In many cases, public memorials and monuments become such a ubiquitous part of the urban environment that community members might not have ever the learned the full story. In 1972, the Lee Monument was the sight of clashes between the Black Panther Party and the Klu Klux Clan, among them New Orleans Segregationist mayor Addison Thompson, yet this event isn’t a part of the discussion on why the monument is significant.

The message of objects within our built world changes as the world around us changes, and the cultural fabric of a community has the ability to bring about new interpretations of older sites. Cities are dynamic. We retrofit buildings as we need them, and we have learned to adaptively re-use almost any structure. Perhaps in retrofitting the Lee Monument for 2015, a successful plan would include additional information on the Black Panther’s fight for fair housing in New Orleans in the 1970s, along with the usual discussion of Robert E. Lee. The Lee Memorial has also been the site of other recent events. On November 30, 2014, people rallied in support of Mike Brown and the community of Ferguson, Missouri at the Lee Memorial, marching peacefully from Lee Circle to Congo Square. This alternative history as a place of protest could be shared via a public rededication or with the construction of additional markers beside the memorial. The University of Texas at Austin, faced with the repeated vandalization of their statues of Confederate leaders created a task force to review options, including adding an explanatory plaque to each monument, and moving monuments outright.

Like many Confederate monuments across the country, the Lee Monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While physical integrity is a key factor in arguing for a historic resource’s significance, historians and preservationists will have to address this issue separately.

While the Children of the Confederacy no longer exists, other social and historical organizations are active, and might be interested in acquiring whole monuments or portions of a monument to keep in their private collections. Providing organizations with the opportunity to keep these monuments close to home to could serve to break their power down to a personal scale and allow them to be displayed away from public view.

Mayor Landrieu has suggested that the Lee Monument may be better served in a museum. Curation of these monuments off site might provide them with the space and the context to allow for a more organic reinterpretation. A collection of monuments in this type of setting would be groundbreaking in terms of a collection, but would also be a place of reflection and learning. Imagine an open air museum full of salvaged Confederate monuments as a possible solution.

Some memorials might be candidates for a complete physical reinterpretation. The statue of Lee could be removed from its pedestal and reinstalled at the plinth of the monument, bringing the statue and the outdated ideas it represents to dialogue directly with people and objects at street level.

Monuments have dense layers of meaning, and by nature those layers serve history in a dynamic way. They are designed to be beautiful, aspirational and educational. They drive our imagination, allow us solemn reflection, and give us places to lament the past. It is time that we take authority over our choices and tell them how they can serve our future.

Diner Waitress Heart

In the winter of 2001, I was a low-rung waitress at the Cambridge House on St. Clare and Ohio, just steps from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The Cambridge House had long hours and fold out laminated menus with the full gambit of diner fare. Offerings included Greek omelets, Frencheezies, chicken tenders, tuna melts and a beautifully lit square glass display case at the front of the restaurant full of cigarettes, which you could smoke anywhere you wanted inside, and ash directly into your half-eaten French toast. This display case also had Big Red and Double Mint gums, which were so stale they made you wish you had just bought cigarettes.

Golden House Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois
Golden House Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois

The Cambridge House wasn’t a diner in that it was located in an old railcar. It wasn’t prefabricated of steel. The Cambridge House was a casual American quick service restaurant, a representative of a very specific way of eating well and eating fast in midcentury America that reflected the way that we moved (quickly) and the way that we ate (also quickly) but still catered to our desire for human interaction during mealtimes, or perhaps the simple formality of sitting down and taking a moment, if only for long enough to drink a cup of coffee. Diner culture has a built in series of visual clues that almost always serve to let you know that you’ll be able to get a meatloaf dinner or eggs over easy anytime of the day. The hip red glow of a neon sign. Vinyl booths by the window with low hanging globe fixtures. Counter service. From rows of coffee cups to loaves of bread below an arsenal of toasters; the mathematics of everything being stored and prepared in front of you. A decent priced meal. An American meal.

Johnie's Coffee Shop, Los Angeles, California
Johnie’s Coffee Shop, Los Angeles, California

The establishment only accepted cash, with every transaction handled exclusively and inefficiently by a slow moving, grouchy cousin of the wife of the owner’s brother, Chicago-style nepotism at its absolute finest. This person’s management style consisted of falling asleep and then waking abruptly to yell at you. My uniform was a white blouse with black pants and a black apron in flammable polyester that took on the scent of anything fishy or fried. The blouses were just sheer enough that you could make out the lace of a bra if you looked long enough in the florescent light, and while I believe this was the intention, the Cambridge House was no Hooters. The waitresses were a world-weary, tired and incredibly mean bunch. These women were products of a time where women’s choices were not yet totally their own, and while many had proudly made it through personal strife just to come to work to fill jelly containers, they were shameless in their willingness to suck up to the management or drag each other under the bus. These women had an incredible tolerance for harassment and sexist jokes, and the restaurant dished it out like an All-Complete Dinner. Despite this, the waitresses set their hair, reapplied lipstick in the reflection of the chrome on the soda fountain, and dressed their aprons with jack-o’-lantern pins in October and American flag pins in July.

The Cambridge House had a long oval counter, and almost every surface was covered in pebbled pink Formica, worn at the counter from decades of elbows. The floors were dingy white and pink check, with every edge and corner from the tables to the display case for the pies and cantaloupes tipped in chrome. The wobbly stools were backless and low, and it was there at the counter that the true relics of Old Chicago would hold court. They would don their bowties and trench coats or their mink jackets and blue eye shadow, ride the elevators down from some of the most lavish midcentury condominiums; the Constellation on Dearborn, 227 East Walton Place, and the Astor Towers to make their way in walkers and canes across the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and into the Cambridge House of the 21st century, where a cup of coffee was a dollar and some change. Time at the Cambridge House was able to stand still for them, or at least slow to a comfortable pace. Compared to the Guess store and Burrito Beach, the Cambridge House was a strange, slightly slummy relic, and had barely changed a light bulb since opening in 1967.

Side work game weak AF.
Side work game weak AF!

Side work included wiping down the giant stainless steel reach-in, consolidating and covering French, Ranch and blue cheese dressings, and filling ketchup bottles from a contraption called the “Ketchup Cow” with funny looking udders that were constantly being fondled by greasy hands. Giant hotel bins held sugar packets, and I once saw a waitress smoke a whole cigarette while filling the sugars and talking to another waitress, ashing the smoke only with the movements of her mouth. Now that’s talent.

Amongst the valets, businessmen, doctors and foreign tourists who came for the Cambridge House’s Monte Christos and meatloaf dinners were guests of the Jerry Springer Show, which filmed nearby. Girlfriends with Shocking Confessions, Hillbilly Husbands and Reckless Pregnant Teens were given 25 dollar vouchers to eat at the restaurant. The vouchers couldn’t be used to purchase alcohol but could be used to buy cigarettes. The presence of a voucher usually meant that the You are Not The Fathers and Best Friend Love Triangles would order a pack of Camels, the ribeye with extra blue cheese crumbles and a baked potato; and everything else with an optional add on or mix in to max out the vouchers. Conflicts would erupt on a regular basis, and while I never figured out whether the guests were dining at the Cambridge House before or after the show, every night with them was a tacky dress rehearsal, me taking on the roll of a kind of short order Jerry Springer, interviewing guests about dressing choices and later on in the meal providing the results of a pregnancy test as well as a dish of orange sherbet. The intermission between the soup and the salad seemed like it was always the right time for someone to freak out, and these guests would ask for the remainder of their food be wrapped up to go, as if some internal alarm would ring, alerting them that they needed to fill their quota of wacky irrational behavior and disappear into the night.

Mickey's Dining Car, St. Paul, Minnesota
Mickey’s Dining Car, St. Paul, Minnesota

I quit the job without notice. I was suffering through another boring night making no money, mindlessly filling saltshakers when I looked over to find one of the bussers leering over me. “Do you like tequila?” he asked. I don’t remember how I responded, but my answer was followed by a request to suck tequila out of one of my body cavities, and lucky me; I would be able to pick which one! I ran for my backpack and jacket and left the Cambridge House without a word to anyone, my face red and swollen from the angry, teary eruption that I knew would happen as soon as I walked out the door. I was disgusted and embarrassed. I never went back again.

Johnny's Grill, Chicago, Illinois
Johnny’s Grill, Chicago, Illinois

The Cambridge House finally said uncle to the 21st century in 2006. Journalists and Chicagoans lamented the closing of the restaurant, perhaps the most well known being John Kass’s old fashioned choice of words in the Chicago Tribune that year, applauding the old fashioned prices, and the old fashioned waitresses for their observed lack of ambition and thus greater ability to do their jobs:

“The waitresses are waitresses, not “servers,” not actresses with attitude. They're grown women who work quickly and well for honest tips, in their crisp white blouses. There's no "theme" to the Cambridge House, unless the theme is that you can eat lunch for under $10, from a plate, like an adult, and the waitresses will ask if you want a warm-up on that coffee.”

I’ve never felt any direct empathy for the closing of the restaurant and remember feeling an odd sense of relief walking by to see the building a pile of concrete. The bad memories were now just bits of glass and rebar.

Despite my horrible time working in one, I am obsessed with diners. Seeing that flash of aluminum from the side of a road makes my palms sweat. A neon coffee cup swinging off the side of a building couldn’t be a more powerful suggestive sell. Vitrolite, Formica, vinyl, chrome; materials with that old fashioned slickness. Diners have the ability to track the passage of time, but then also freeze it. A counter spot for one allows a single diner to feel connected to the energy of an environment but still retain privacy. The diner is a subset of Americana that evokes a deep pleasure in me, but as the case with many situations where nostalgia is the driving factor, it’s often a letdown.

I’m gullibly romanced into eating at trapped-in-amber diners to find that the ambiance is the only thing that’s good. The waitress is covered in Taz tattoos, the omelets are flaccid, the coffee has no taste and Shania Twain is playing on the radio. The experience is terrible except for the aesthetics of the place. The food is bad, the staff is cranky, and the air vents are greasy. Then a week later the insides of the windows are covered in newspaper. Another crappy diner bites the dust.

Unknown diner, Clarks Hill, Indiana
Unknown diner, Clarks Hill, Indiana

My bad experience as a diner waitress left me feeling like I had been robbed of a part of Americanness that I would have otherwise relished participating in. Because of this, I am always willing to take a gamble on a good old diner, even if it’s a good old bad one.