Sunday, September 17, 2017

Enjoy the movie but...

For those of you eagerly awaiting Ken Burns's documentary on the Vietnam War as I am, consider this. Burns is a fabulous storyteller, that much is certain. Unfortunately he has a problem with not letting facts get in the way of a good story. One of the central characters in his 1994 film "Baseball" was one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Ty Cobb. In his film, Burns cast Cobb as the villain: "a great black mark on the history of the game" and "an embarrassment to baseball." Over and over again, Cobb comes up as a mean spirited racist who hated black people and "deplored the integration of the game." Burns and quite honestly just about everyone else who wrote about Cobb after his death, based everything they said about the man, on the work of Al Stump, who ghost wrote Cobb's autobiography, and later, three scurrilous pieces, a magazine article, another book, and the screenplay for a movie, on the ballplayer which portrayed the man as a nothing less than a racist monster, on his good days. Burns's treatment of him was in fact, quite tame by comparison.

Two of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb
Looking at this picture of Cobb and Willie Mays, it's a little hard to imagine there's much credibility behind Stump's and Burns's characterization of Cobb. In fact, their version of Ty Cobb is a lie. Far from "deploring the integration of the game", Cobb was one of its champions. Commenting on the subject in 1955, when only half of MLB teams had yet to sign a black player, Ty Cobb said this:

"The Negro should be accepted whole-heartedly and not grudgingly into baseball. The Negro has the right to professional baseball and who’s to say he has not?"

At the time the Associated Press called Cobb's comments " a home run for the negro ballplayer." In his excellent 2015 biography: "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty" Charles Leerhsen debunks virtually everything Stump wrote about Ty Cobb. Stump it turns out, was simply bent on making money on the by then, dead ballplayer to recoup for the lackluster sales of his original "autobiography", Leerhsen makes a very compelling case that Stump's portrayal of Ty Cobb was a terrible injustice that ruined Cobb's good name..

But Leerhsen was not the first to call out Al Stump, there are many pieces of evidence from other sources that the myth of Ty Cobb we have so whole heartedly accepted for so many years, in entirely the imagination of one unscrupulous man.

As the newspaper man of old once said, "when facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend." Despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary, even back in 1994, Ken Burns stuck with the legend. What has Burns to say about his treatment of Ty Cobb, after Leerhsen's very strong evidence that it was all false? So far nothing.

Another reputation who is the victim of Burns's baseball documentary is that of the former owner and founder of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey. You can read about him here.

So enjoy Burns's story of the Vietnam War tonight and the rest of the week, but
bear this in mind: take in all the information you hear with a huge lump of salt.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

I have a running bet with a friend who claims we'll have hell to pay now that they've started removing statues of Confederate heroes in the South. He believes that before you know it, we'll be removing likenesses up here of presidents who owned slaves, explorers who abused the people they "discovered" and just about every statue in town that offends somebody, which when you come to think of it, is probably every statue in town.

We didn't set terms but I've already offered to pay the dollar I owe him as after we made the bet, before you could say Jack Robinson, activists made demands that the Daniel Chester French equestrian statue of George Washington in Chicago, which has stood in front of his namesake park for over one hundred years, be removed from view. George Washington owned slaves of course, as did several presidents including U.S .Grant who owned one slave while he lived at his wife's family plantation in St. Louis. The man's name was William Jones, and Grant freed him shortly before the Civil War. I have yet to hear any demand to remove Chicago's monument to Ulysses S. Grant, but that day may be coming.

To my knowledge we don't have statues of other slave holding presidents in Chicago but plenty of things named after them, and other problematic historical figures. We have Washington Park and Jackson Park on the South side, and Douglas Park on the West, named after Steven Douglas, the Illinois senator and proponent of slavery, who lost the 1860 presidential election to Abraham Lincoln.

The South Side pastor who suggested that George Washington and his horse come down, also suggested that streets and parks named after these problematic figures be re-named. To ease the pain, he gave a simple solution to the problem. Instead of changing the names of the parks and roads, all we'd have to do is re-dedicate these places to more appropriate people who happen to share last names. So for example, Washington Park could become Harold Washington Park, (after the city's first African American mayor), Jackson Park cold become Jesse or Michael Jackson Park (after the civil rights activist or the King of Pop). and Douglas Park could become Frederick Douglass Park, and all they'd have to do is add one "s" to the common name.  So far I haven't heard mention of the community of Jefferson Park being re-dedicated in honor of the blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson but that may be in our future as well.

I make light of this knowing full well that there are people who are quite sincere about reconsidering tributes to people who owned slaves. Why shouldn't they be? Slavery was a blight upon this nation and its history.

But while I truly believe there are legitimate arguments for considering the future of monuments of people who did things in their lives we don't like, I do see clear distinctions between the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, and other monuments. For me, the most compelling difference is this: we celebrate people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because of their significance in the founding of our nation, despite their shortcomings, including owning slaves. By contrast, people such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are celebrated precisely because of the cause they took up. That cause was directly tied to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, As public monuments represent the ideals of a community, I am in complete agreement with the idea that communities that continue to honor Confederate leaders with monuments in public places, are also implicitly condoning slavery, and other civil rights abuses.

I realize that to some, this distinction may be purely academic. A valid argument could be made that everyone who participated in the institution of slavery is implicit, and therefore, equally deserving of moral condemnation. Following that argument, that would include paradoxically, the man who second only to Abraham.Lincoln, was most directly responsible for the end of slavery in this country, Ulysses S. Grant.

For the record, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel discounted that argument, saying the issue of removing George Washington from his place of honor in Chicago is a "non starter." My guess is that this is not the end of the story. Regardless, the voices of people who would remove statues of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and others, deserve to be heard, and I strongly believe  this is a conversation worth having, regardless of my opposition to removing those monuments.

Thanks to the mayor, George Washington is safe for now, but there are two other controversial Chicago monuments that might have a date with destiny.

Until a few weeks ago, few Chicagoans knew their city had not only a monument to Fascism, but also a bona fide Confederate Monument.

Perhaps the most momentous event that took place during the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, was the culmination of a trans-Atlantic flight of a squadron of 24 seaplanes, under the command of Italo Balbo. A staunch anti-communist, Balbo became one of the early supporters of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF, the Italian Fascist Party. As one of the leaders of the 1922 March on Rome which resulted in a bloodless coup, Balbo was instrumental in bringing the PNF to power in Italy, and Benito Mussolini, the prime ministership of that country. By the 1930s Balbo, who trained as an aviator during WW I, was the Minister of the Italian Air Force and had already one trans-Atlantic crossing under his belt.

The 1933 trip was an eight leg journey originating in Rome, with stops in Europe and Canada before landing in Lake Michigan beside the fair grounds, the present site of Northerly Island. Balbo and his flight were received with a great deal of fanfare including a massive parade and a street named in his honor. So appreciative of all the fuss, the following year Mussolini, who at the time, by every measure of the term, was the dictator of a totalitarian Italy, sent Chicago a present in the form of a monument consisting of a 2,000 year old column  that was removed from the port city of Ostia on the outskirts of Rome. Upon its arrival, the column sitting atop a pedestal, was placed in front of the Italian Pavilion at the Fair. There, the  ancient column stood in stark contrast to the pavilion, a stunning work of Modernism designed by Alexander Capraro. Well Modernism be damned, the pavilion and the rest of the fair buildings disappeared shortly after the Century of Progress closed late in 1934, but the column atop its pedestal remained as the only surviving remnant of the exposition.

Chicago's (in)famous Balbo Monument along the Lakefront Bike Path
And there it remains, long after Italy and its Fascist government joined forces with the Axis powers in the late thirties: Japan who invaded Pearl Harbor, and Adolph Hitler's Germany. Despite being at war with Italy and the government who gave us the monument, no one ever thought to take it down during World War II. Despite the post-war Italian government's strong suggestion the city take down the monument to the regime that brought its country to ruin, it kept standing. And despite the occasional request from concerned citizens for 72 years since the end of World War II, Chicago's Fascist monument still stands today, ironically just a few steps away from a stadium dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. armed services, Soldier Field.

Today if you look really hard, you can still read these words inscribed on the pedestal:
The inscription worn by years of exposure to the elements,
extolling the glories of Balbo, Mussolini and Fascism.
Fascist Italy, by command of Benito Mussolini
presents to Chicago
exaltation symbol memorial
of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo
that with Roman daring, flew across the ocean
in the 11th year

of the Fascist era
In the current placement of the monument, there does seem to be one concession to its controversial nature. The object is turned ninety degrees so that the Italian inscription on the base does not face the lakefront bike path upon which the monument resides. An English translation, which is now barely legible from erosion due to the elements, is on the side directly opposite the path.

Today in light of the removal of the Southern statues, a new movement has emerged to remove the Balbo monument. Spearheaded by Chicago aldermen Ed Burke, and Gilbert Villegas, who himself just learned of the monument's existence a few weeks ago, the Balbo monument is once again in the news, if just barely.

So should it stay or should it go? Well on purely philosophical terms, I'd say there is no question that if we're going to remove statues of Confederate leaders who were themselves, enemies of the United States, then a monument to a foreign enemy, with direct ties to Hitler no less, really has no place in a public park in Chicago. For consistency's sake alone, I can't think of any good reason not to move it to a museum or other venue where it can be placed into a more appropriate context.

To get to the Italian inscription on the base
you have to walk around the black fence.
The English interpretation is on the left,
 hidden from the view of casual passersby. 
On the other hand, unlike the vast outpouring of emotion and rightful indignation over the Confederate monuments, especially after the disgusting white supremacist rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last month, public emotion in Chicago over the Balbo monument is barely a trickle if that. To my knowledge it has never been a rallying point for black shirted neo-Fascists proclaiming the glories of Il Duce. Despite it being located in Chicago's front yard near one of the city's premier sports venues, it is quite off the beaten path, seen mostly by cyclists and runners who manage only a quick glace as they zip on by. If you're intent on seeing it, you really have to seek it out.

The monument is an anomaly, a side-show story in the history of this city, an interesting, if strange and somewhat macabre attraction. If it were removed from the park, probably few people would miss it. My guess is that like dozens of times before, there will be a little fuss made over the appropriateness of the Balbo Monument, then something more pressing will come up, and it will be forgotten again. It's kind of like the old radio gag, Fibber McGee's Closet, where every time the hall closet door is opened at 79 Wistful Vista, all the contents comes spilling out onto the floor. Likewise, every time the subject of the Balbo Monument comes up, Chicago's response is just like McGee's: "I gotta clean out that closet one of these days." Of course, he never does.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I expect my grandchildren to be around to see the Balbo monument standing in precisely the same spot where it stands today.

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As strange as a Fascist monument in Chicago's front yard may sound, the thought of a Confederate monument in the predominantly African American community of Grand Crossing, in a cemetery that bears the earthly remains of African American icons including Harold Washington, Jesse Owens, Thomas Dorsey and Ida B. Wells, may seem truly bizarre.

But Confederate Mound's existence in Oak Woods Cemetery is anything but bizarre. During the Civil War, Camp Douglas, on property belonging to the aforementioned Steven A. Douglas, served as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Conditions at the camp were wretched and thousands of prisoners died while in confinement due to starvation, exposure, scurvy, cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and numerous other maladies. Bodies of soldiers were mercilessly dumped in the lake, only to have them wash up on the shore, or buried in shallow ground without coffins. Others were sold off for medical experiments. In all, the official death toll at Camp Douglas was listed at  4,454, but the number is certainly higher.. It is estimated that the death rate at the camp was approximately 17 percent of all prisoners confined there.

After the war, the bodies interred in Camp Douglas were moved to the old City Cemetery, the present site of Lincoln Park. The constant flooding of that site necessitated the closing of that cemetery and the remains were moved again, this time to the new Oak Woods Cemetery on the Chicago's south side. There, roughly six thousand bodies were re-interred in concentric rows within a two-acre plot, purchased by the Federal Government in 1867. Along with the Confederate soldiers, the bodies of twelve unidentified Union prison guards are buried in what is said to be the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.

In the 1890s a monument was proposed for the grave site and contributions were solicited from all over the country. The completed monument consists of a likeness of a Confederate Army soldier standing atop a forty foot tower. The base of the tower holds plaques with the names of 4,275 men known to have perished at Fort Douglas. Five gravestones in front of the tower commemorate the roughly 1,500 unidentified soldiers buried at the site. Four cannons, one pyramid made of cannonballs, and a pole flying the American Flag. stand around the perimeter of the site.

The monument to the roughly 6,000 men who perished in Fort Douglas from 1861 to 1865 was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1895. Present at the dedication were President Grover Cleveland, his entire cabinet, and about 100,000 spectators.

Confederate Mound has been brought up sporadically in light of the recent controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments. Daily Southtown reporter Ted Slowik questioned in a op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune why there hasn't been more controversy surrounding Confederate Mound. In his piece, Slowik examines both sides over why Chicago's Confederate monument should or should not be controversial. He points out that the monument over the gravesite, the work of General John C. Underwood, head of the United Confederate Veterans division west of the Alleghenies, was built at a time when nostalgia, rather than a critical examination of the past was the rule of the day, at least regarding the Civil War. He takes it one step further with this sinister tidbit:
Many Confederate monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era to intimidate blacks, 
That was certainly true in the south where there was growing resentment by whites of black people whom they felt "didn't know their place." I'm not so sure that sentiment would apply to Confederate Mound as the African American population of Chicago in the 1890s was relatively low and the few black people who did live here at the time, were integrated into the rest of the population. Of course that all changed during the Great Migration of the 1910s when the tens of thousands of African Americans looking for better opportunities up north, came to Chicago and found themselves forced into over-crowded, restricted ghettos on the south side. Virulent racism, at least the kind that would inspire the building of a monument to Confederate soldiers just to prove who's boss, wouldn't have been much of an issue in Chicago, at least not in the 1890s.

Slowik then comes upon another, more logical reason to build the monument in Chicago:
But Confederate Mound represents something different: an effort by Congress to encourage reconciliation.


The need to reconcile, to heal the old wounds of the Civl War was not a new idea in the 1890s. It goes all the way back to just before the end of the war, March 4, 1865 to be exact, when Abraham Lincoln stood before the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building and ended his second inaugural address with these words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Those words were put into action just one month later at the courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia after Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee's unconditional surrender. Rather than having the Confederate general led away in chains to be prosecuted as a traitor, Grant gave Lee and his generals their freedom, allowing them to walk away from the courthouse with their dignity intact, their swords still in their scabbards.

For his part, Lee, who also recognized the need for reconciliation, would go to his grave insisting that the people of the South NOT erect monuments to the leaders of the lost cause and go on fighting the Civil War, but rather live their lives as devoted Americans. Sadly, he never got his wish.

I think it is fitting that Confederate Mound exists here in Chicago. It is not a war monument, nor is it a monument to the Confederacy, not by a long shot. Rather it is an elegy to wasted lives. We may hate the cause they fought and died for, but it makes no sense to hate the men of the South who are buried at Oak Woods Cemetery. They were I have no doubt, to a man, caught up in a struggle that was far beyond their control. Some of them may have supported slavery, others may have not, fighting the battle because they felt it was their duty. It's very likely that since they are buried up in Chicago and not down home, few if any of them owned slaves. Regardless, who are we to judge them?

We can go on all we like about the South bearing responsibility for their soldiers' fate, refusing prisoner exchanges because they did not consider captured black Union soldiers as soldiers, or about the fact that back in the day, African American people were not permitted to be buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. Those are both injustices. But as the gravestones note, the men buried here, roughly 6000 Confederate and 12 Union soldiers, were all American soldiers. They lie underneath the American flag. They died horrific deaths in our city, on American soil, in the alleged care of other Americans. The least we can do for these men is give them the dignity in death that they did not receive in life. Removing the monument above their final resting place would also be an injustice, that in no way would alleviate the other injustices.

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Yes the removal of the Confederate monuments in the South is indeed a slippery slope. It has the potential of opening up a Pandora's box of issues regarding other monuments around the country. Well so be it. Every monument in this country has its own history, and its own meaning. We shouldn't make decrees saying that all statues that commemorate X must be taken down while all those commemorating Y must stay. Nor should we demand that every statue must remain precisely where it stands for perpetuity.  We must not dismiss wholesale the feelings of our fellow citizens for whom some monuments represent the oppression of their people. Yet we are doing ourselves a disservice to insist that every statue that offends somebody must be removed.

Fortunately we have the tools at our disposal in the form of an active local citizenry, a free press, and locally elected representative governments to address the issues of monuments that no longer represent the values of a community. For the time being anyway, we live in an open society that tolerates the expression of different views. We have ears, as long as we are willing to use them, to listen to different points of view. Hopefully we have compassion to be open to, even if we don't necessarily agree with, the views of others. No public monument should be off limits to at the very least, discussion about its role in the community.

Most important we have brains that, when they are not corrupted by prejudice, intolerance and obsessive ideology, are more than capable of figuring out which statues should stay, and which ones should go.

Maybe it's time to start using them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving Statues Around

It's hard to give up long held ideas and beliefs. My father, God rest his soul, went to his grave, eighty two years of age, still believing things he learned in the second grade. Neither logic nor empirical observation could sway him from the basic facts and ideas he learned in school as a child. 

Unless scientific findings challenge one's deeply held existential beliefs, I think it's safe to say that most people, unlike my father, accept the premise that scientific facts are facts, only until someone proves them otherwise. However I think many of us are more like my father when it comes to history. To them, the definition of history is the following: something happened, someone wrote about it, we read it, and that's that. Attempts to correct misconceptions about the past are usually met with suspicion, or even contempt. Any time someone tries to re-shape our concept of history, we call it "revisionist" or in our current Trump era parlance, "fake" history. 

This was made crystal clear to me a couple years ago when Charles Leerhsen wrote a biography of the great ball player, Ty Cobb. Now it was "common knowledge" that despite his prowess on the field, Cobb was a racist and all 'round nogoodnick. Leerhsen was prepared to write a book exploiting Cobb's misdeeds, and found several, (as the man had quite the temper). But he was surprised to discover that much of what we think we know about Ty Cobb, including his relationship with and his feelings toward black people, were never mentioned (at all, anywhere), until a biography of him was published shortly after his death. Through scrupulous research, Leerhsen could not find one shred of evidence that Cobb had racist tendencies, at least for a man of his time. On the contrary, Cobb, the descendant of Southern abolitionists, was a vocal supporter of the integration of the game of baseball, and a generous benefactor of charities that supported African American people in his home state of Georgia. After very serious consideration, Leerhsen came to the conclusion that the author of Cobb's biography, Al Stump, was an unscrupulous man who looking to create sensation where there wasn't any, made up most of the stuff that destroyed Ty Cobb's good name. Unfortunately it was Stump's work that would become the story of record on the life of Cobb.

As a result of his hard work, Leerhsen's book, Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty, was met with incredulity by many who refused to accept that their assumptions and prejudices about Cobb could be wrong. Its critics called the book, revisionist history. After all, it was none other than the de facto authority on American history, Ken Burns, who told us on public TV no less, that Cobb was "the great black mark on the history of baseball." If he said it, it had to be true, right? Well it turns out that Burns's description of Ty Cobb, as well as just about everybody else's, came straight out of Stump's work, virtually word for word.

I bring him up because Ty Cobb's name has been mentioned along with those of other notable Americans, whose monuments, some people believe should be removed from places of honor because those individuals had flawed characters of one kind or another. 

This all comes on the heels of the movement to remove Confederate monuments from public places across America. Taking advantage of the moment, some folks going well above and beyond the motives of the movement's original intent, are demanding the removal of likenesses of presidents who owned slaves, and any other historical figure who may have at some point in his or her life, displayed bigotry of one kind or another. As if on cue, the right wing "don't remove any monument anywhere, anytime" crowd, are in ecstasy over their disgust of the "liberal snowflakes" who would dare remove monuments to cherished Americans, simply because they are "offended" by them. 

The right wing sentiments could be summed up by a Donald Trump tweet he posted after the tragedy in Charlottesville two weeks ago: 

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson... So foolish! 


As I've said time and again, there are good arguments to be made for both sides of the Confederate monument debate, but changing history is not one of them. Other than being an injustice (if you buy into Charles Leerhsen's premise as I do), taking down the likeness of Ty Cobb in Comerica Park in Detroit would not erase Ty Cobb from baseball history. No one is talking about expunging his stats from the record books, removing him from baseball's Hall of Fame, or burning the millions of copies of the dozens of books about him. No one is suggesting wiping clean the memories of Cobb from millions of baseball fans or members of his family. 

The same can be said of the Confederate monuments. Taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee won't make people forget who he was, what he did, and what he fought for. It certainly wouldn't change the outcome of the Civil War, or everything that has happened since. Besides, no one is suggesting melting down the bronze likeness of General Lee and recasting it as Al Sharpton, (although I'd love to see the reaction of the rightist snowflakes if that were ever suggested). The plan is for these statues to be moved to institutions such as museums or cemeteries, where they can be viewed as historical artifacts, rather than as icons of devotion, which many have become in their current settings. 

As promised at the end of my last post, I'd like to point out some examples of local monuments which I am very familiar with, that illustrate what happens when monuments and the values of the community in which they stand, are no longer in sync.

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Chicago could at one time boast more Polish people than any other city in the world with the exception of Warsaw. By the 1890s the city boasted dozens of churches and countless institutions and organizations serving the community and preserving Polish culture. One of those organizations, the Kosciuszko Society endeavored to erect a monument in then heavily Polish Humboldt Park, to their namesake hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a military engineer who served with distinction in both the American Continental Army during the US Revolutionary War, and with the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania during their conflict against Russia. 

Polish Constitution Day rally at the foot of the Kosciuszko Monument in Humboldt Park
photographer unknown
For eight years, the society collected funds for the $30.000 necessary to construct the monument. Everything from pennys donated by laborers, to a $500 gift from the great Polish pianist turned politician and advocate of Polish independence, Ignacy Paderewski, went into the coffers. The resulting equestrian statue of Kosciuszko in the role of brigadier general, is the work of Kasmir Chodzinski, who was selected out of many Polish artists in a competition held by the Society. Standing in the northeast corner of Humboldt Park's great lawn, it is said that 100,000 people showed up for its unveiling in 1904 and that President Theodore Roosevelt sent a wire of congratulations. From then until the late 1960s, the statue served as the terminus for Chicago's Polish Constitution Day parade, held at the beginning of May each year, as politicians and performers of all ethnicities gathered in its shadow to address and entertain Chicago's Polonia. On a personal note, at one of those gatherings, while sitting atop my father's shoulders, I caught my one and only glimpse of Robert F. Kennedy who before his assassination in 1968, made a regular pilgrimage to the parade.

The Kosciuszko monument was a great source of pride in that community until the neighborhood began to change. By the end of the sixties, the parade moved Downtown and the equestrian statue, no longer relevant to the people who now lived in the neighborhood, became the target of graffiti and other vandalism. The great lawn designed for public gatherings, became the site of baseball fields and the Kosciuszko monument became controversial for one reason only, it was in the way.


By the mid-seventies, the monument was removed for the construction of another ball field. Few Poles were still around the neighborhood to mourn its loss. The statue found new life, restored to good as new, and relocated to Burnham Park on the peninsula between the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. It is now in an arguably more prominent site downtown, yet it has lost its context as the focal point of Humboldt Park, literally the crossroads of Chicago's Polonia. Today it is part of a pan-Slavic ensemble, forced to share its glory on the street now called Solidarity Drive, with a monument to the Czech man of letters Karel Havlicek, also moved from its original location, and the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus.

Kosciuszko, his glory just a little faded, as today he stands watch over Burnham Park
Despite that bit of a comedown for the statue, the legacy of Tadeusz Kosciuszko the man, lives on, along with the society named after him. 

As I said, there wasn't much controversy over the Kosciuszko monument, it was moved for practical reasons. The same can't be said for two monuments that depict tragic episodes in Chicago history.

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No statue in Chicago has suffered more indignities than the wobegone policeman atop the original Haymarket Riot Monument. It's been kicked at, spit upon, covered with graffiti, hit by a streetcar, moved at least six times, and blown up, twice. The riot which the monument commemorates, and the events that followed, are famous the world over as one of the pivotal moments in the international movement for workers' rights. Here is my account of the Haymarket Affair from a 2011 post.

After the May 4, 1886 riot which began after police moved in to break up an otherwise peaceful workers rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square, most of public sentiment favored the police, who lost eight of their own (many of whom died from indiscriminate shots fired from other policemen), over the demonstrators,  (who lost several of their own), the majority of whom were immigrants from Central Europe. In fact anti-immigrant hostility in this city was so high at the time that the man commissioned to create the monument, Danish artist John Gelert, was asked to re-work the face of the police officer, because it looked "too Irish." Gelert refused. The pro-police sentiment of the time explains why the loss of the policemen, not the workers, was commemorated by a statue, while the injustice of the execution of several of the organizers of the rally who had nothing to do with the violence, was overlooked. It would take over a century for the city to rectify that.

The original Haymarket Memorial in its second location in front of Union Park
photographer unknown
The police statue originally stood at the site of the riot on Desplaines Avenue between Lake and Randolph Streets, but it proved to be a nuisance as streetcar tracks had to be re-routed to avoid it. After it had been vandalized on numerous occasions, the statue was moved west to the edge of Union Park in 1900. Then on May 4, 1927, the forty first anniversary of the riot it commemorates, irony struck in the form of a streetcar going full speed which jumped its tracks and rammed into the statue, knocking it from its pedestal. After that, the statue was moved inside the park where it enjoyed thirty one years of relative peace and obscurity. In 1958 it was moved back to the Haymarket area which is where I first encountered it as a child. 

Then came the Days of Rage in the late sixties when battles with the police again became part and parcel of life in Chicago. On October 6, 1969, the statue was blown up by members of the Students for a Democratic Society, (the S.D.S.).

As Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok would have said on "Farm Film Report" during the late seventies SCTV comedy program: "Whoo boy they sure blowed that statue up real good." The legs of the policeman ended up on the Kennedy Expressway twenty feet below while hundreds of windows in the neighborhood were blown out. The Chicago Police were none too amused. The act prompted this bit of hyperbole from a police department spokesperson:

The blowing up of the only police monument in the United Sates by the anarchists ... is an obvious declaration of war between the police and the S.D.S. and other anarchist groups. We feel it is kill or be killed regardless of the Jay Millers, (director of the Illinois ACLU), Daniel Walkers (who investigated the clashes between the police and rioters during the 1968 Democratic convention and later became Illinois governor), and the so-called civil rights acts.

The statue was duly restored and returned to its perch above the expressway where it stood exactly one year to the day of the first explosion, when it was again, blowed up real good. After that, it received round-the-clock police protection until it was removed into police custody where it has remained ever since. Currently it resides in the courtyard of the Chicago Police Department Headquarters at 35th and Michigan, where you can see it but only if you look real hard from the street.

This is the public view of original Haymarket Monument today
 as seen from 35th Street in front of Chicago Police Headquarters

More irony about the monument can be found in the words on the pedestal:


I had to sweet talk an officer into allowing me access to photograph the statue up close. As you can probably guess, the base of the monument is not original. it's the work of local artist Mike Baur and
made its debut as the pedestal for the 1889 sculpture in 2007 when the monument made its latest move to CPDHQ.





Fro 32 years, visitors coming to Chicago from all over the world were shocked to find that the site of of one of the most important moments in the history of the labor movement, stood without any reminder of the significance of the place, not even a commemorative plaque. According to Chicago's official historian Tim Samuelson,
I can remember that in my own lifetime, not long ago, bringing up the idea of commemorating Haymarket was impossible because it revived emotions that were too strong. It took a long time to get historical perspective, to be able to look back at Haymarket and see that it was everyone's tragedy.
Mary Brogger's Haymarket Memorial, unveiled in 2004
In 2004, a new monument by Chicago artist Mary Brogger was unveiled at the Haymarket site, precisely where the speakers' platform, a wagon, stood on that fateful evening. Bragger's work features a disassembled wagon upon which several semi abstract figures are engaged in various activities related to either constructing or dismantling the wagon. The author of a New York Times piece described the work as "ambiguous." Brogger wanted it that way. She told the Times reporter:
I was pretty adamant in my own mind that it would not be useful to depict violence... The violence didn't seem important, because this event was made up of much bigger ideas than one particular incident. I didn't want to make the imagery conclusive. I want to suggest the complexity of truth, but also people's responsibility for their actions and for the effect of their actions.
Whether or not she was successful is up to the mind's eye of the beholder. Perhaps for a memorial commemorating an event as tragic and complicated as the Haymarket Affair, neutrality is exactly what the doctor ordered. After all, the facts are all out there, it's up to us to process them, not for a statue to decide for us.

Troubled as its history was, the original Haymarket Memorial was not the most controversial monument in Chicago history, not by a long shot.

-

In 1812 the United States was at war with Great Britain. The Brits found a useful ally in Native Americans whose lands and ways of life were quickly being usurped by the ever expanding settlement of white Americans. In that year, Chicago was a small settlement with homes scatted along the main branch of the Chicago River, all of them a stone’s throw from Fort Dearborn. 

Before the war there was a relatively peaceful coexistence between the white settlers in Chicago and the Indians, mostly members of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples who freely traded and even intermarried with the settlers. But as news of the new allegiance spread, there was discord between members of the tribes, mostly along generational lines. The elders perhaps realizing the hopelessness of their situation, looked to maintain peace with the settlers while the young “turks” were eager to cut their teeth in battle and join forces with the British. 

Fort Dearborn, built nine years earlier, was the United States’ westernmost Great Lakes encampment, built at the strategic point near the mouth of the Chicago River. In July of that year, a similar fort along the Straights of Mackinac, connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron, was captured by the British with the help of their Native American allies. With that garrison gone, the Commandant of Fort Dearborn, Captain Nathan Heald received word from his superiors that the defense and re-enforcement of Fort Dearborn was no longer tenable and to prepare for evacuation. 

Joined by Captain William Wells who volunteered to assist in the effort, Captain Heald and a group of 55 soldiers, 12 civilian militiamen, 9 women and 18 children began the perilous journey from Chicago to Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

As the group marched along the lake shore, unbeknownst to them, obscured by sand dunes to the west, a group of perhaps 500 Potawatomi warriors were waiting for them. When the warriors were spotted, Captain Heald made the fateful decision to attack, thereby separating the civilians and soldiers. As the vastly outnumbered soldiers approached, the Indians fell back, allowing the hapless Americans into their flanks, where they didn't have a chance. After the soldiers were neutralized, the Indians went after the wagons containing the civilians. They made quick work of the militiamen and then proceeded to slaughter many of their wives and children. Wells by all accounts, fought valiantly to the death. So impressed by his efforts, some the warriors cut out the heart of the fallen captain and consumed it, so as to absorb some of his courage. Wounded but still alive, Heald surrendered after receiving promises that the few remaining survivors would be spared. The following day Fort Dearborn was burned to the ground and the captive survivors were eventually ransomed. 

Much of what we know of that event comes to us through the writings of Juliette Kinzie, whose memoirs of frontier life called Wau-bun, contains a chapter devoted to what would become known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre.” But Mrs. Kinzie was a generation removed from the events of that day; her accounts based upon the testimony of some of the survivors. As one can imagine, Kinzie’s story is told from the viewpoint of the settlers. Despite numerous inaccuracies and dramatic flourishes, Kinzie’s account would be the story of record of the dreadful event for most of the nineteenth century. 

Another version of the story that would emerge some eighty years later, was told by Simon Pokagon, the son of a Potawatomie Chief who was present at the attack. Where Kinzie spoke of Indian treachery preceding the attack, Pokagon spoke of white treachery. Pokagon places the blame directly on the shoulders of Captain Heald for being foolish enough to go through with the march knowing full well of its dangers, However, few of the details regarding the actual battle differ in the two stories. 

Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument
on its original site at 18th and Calumet
The site of the attack at present day 18th Street and Calumet Avenue, would become the property of industrialist George Pullman who commissioned another Danish sculptor, Carl Rohl-Smith to create a monument commemorating the horrific event. The subject of the sculpture is based directly upon a story taken from Mrs. Kinzie’s account. In the tableau, one of the women in the group, Margaret Helm, grabs for a knife of an Indian while he holds a tomahawk aimed at the woman’s head, about to strike. Meanwhile another Indian, Black Partridge, a chief who had opposed the attack, intervenes to save the woman's life. At the feet of the three principal characters in the scene are the bodies of victims either killed or mortally wounded in the massacre.

Pullman willed the monument of the grizzly event to the Chicago Historical Society where it stood in that institution's lobby for many years. But the statue proved even too problematic for the museum after Native American groups protested its simplistic depiction of their people and the event. The statue briefly returned to it original site at 18th Street in the 1990s until it was removed by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, ostensibly for conservation. Since then is has sat in a Chicago Park District warehouse where it will likely remain for a long time, perhaps even perpetuity.

The story of the event and fate of the Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument is a good example of the way history can been hijacked by special interest groups bent on promoting their ideology. In 2009, a new park opened at the site of the attack. Pondering over what to name the park, Park District officials harkened back to the words of Simon Pokagon, who over one hundred years earlier said:  “When whites are killed, it is a massacre, but when Indians are killed, it is a fight.” It was decided that the park would be given the somewhat awkward name, "The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park." That appellation has now become the default label for the tragic event. Here is an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune written on the 200th anniversary of the attack, that tries to explain why what happened on that scorching hot day 205 years ago was not a massacre. The article's author Patrick T. Reardon has this to say:
Calling the battle a "massacre" cast the engagement in stark black-and-white terms and demonized the Indians. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Indeed, at the dedication of the Fort Dearborn Massacre sculpture in 1893, the director of the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) described the attackers as "invaders" and "barbarians."
The truth, however, is that, at that moment 200 years ago, the Americans were the invaders, and ....Chicago was "a symbol of an imposed colonial presence." 
OK I get it. It is without a doubt that Native Americans were subjugated by and suffered greatly at the hands of white settlers who stole their land and their livelihoods. It's not hard to understand why Native Americans sided with the British against the Americans, and we can grasp that an attack of a military unit is part of war. I think everyone today understands the loaded meaning of the word "massacre", and it is safe to say that the insistence of using that word to describe the events that unfolded on August 15, 1812, went a long way to seal the fate of the Native American people who once called this area home.

That's all well and good, but despite going into great deal about the events of the attack, what Reardon fails to mention anywhere in his article is the inconvenient truth that innocent women and children were brutally killed that day. The same is true for the plaque that currently marks Battle of Fort Dearborn Park.

Simon Pokegon did not ignore the victims. Describing the atrocity he said: “the Angel of Mercy seem(ed) to have been asleep” as a lone warrior entered their wagon and bludgeoned them all to death. For those actions that warrior "was hated by the tribe ever after" according to Pokegon.

The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park
I suspect few of the hundreds of residents of Chicago's new South Side walking their dogs everyday in this 1/2 acre park
understand the full magnitude of what took place here 205 years ago.
The plaque at the opposite end of the park only tells part of the story. 
It does not serve history to leave out or minimize that critical part of the story.  Whether we like it or not, whether or not it it fits into our world view or not, by any definition of the word, what happened on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan was a massacre. Rebranding the incident as a "battle" is not going to change that fact.

On the other side of the ideological divide, here is an article from a right wing publication that advocates the return of "Chicago's Forgotten Masterpiece" to the site of the attack.
By 1970, a new generation of Chicagoans turned to forgetting and rewriting history. The American settlers and soldiers who died at the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812 were transformed into "white invaders." Carl Rohl-Smith's masterpiece was removed from the Chicago History Museum and hidden from view.
In researching this piece I came across a wonderful quote from John N. Low, visiting assistant professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and a a member of the Michigan-based Pokagon Potawatomi. Regarding the change of terms from massacre to battle, Mr. Low said this: 
History is not truth; it’s memory, And a part of remembering is considering what we forgot. 
What some of us forgot is that the white people really were invaders. History wasn't re-written to make that so. Others forgot about the innocent victims of the "Battle of Fort Dearborn." Those same people may have forgotten that white settlers paid dearly for the right to call this land theirs, but the other side forgets that white people were here by choice, knowing the risks of taking over land that for centuries was occupied by someone else.

Tim Samuelson's argument about the Haymarket Affair being too painful for many years to come to grips with it, is even more compelling regarding the events that took place on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan. With the Haymarket Affair, eventually the police came to the realization they they too were part of the labor movement that protesters fought and died for at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact everyone of us who lives off a paycheck must be thankful for the actions and sacrifices of those people.

However the history of the relationship between Native American people and the European settlers who supplanted them in this country remains complicated and painful. It's true that the murder of the innocents during the "Battle of Fort Dearborn" was an atrocity. There were also many atrocities against Indians committed by the hands of white people.

Unfortunately the story of post-Columbian Native American history continues to be told from at least two sides. While the Fort Dearborn Monument attempts to tell two sides of the story by showing Black Partridge saving Margaret Helm while another Native American tries to murder her, it nevertheless falls short. Perhaps it is impossible for a work of art to put everything into its proper historical context. On the other hand, the plaque at Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, while also attempting to tell more than one side of the story, still leaves out a very critical component. Neither does a very good job of putting the story into proper context.

As we've seen, history is not served without the proper context.

Perhaps it is fitting that Carl Rohl-Smith's Monument to the Fort Dearborn Massacre will not see the light of day until we are able to reconcile all sides of the story, and give up our tenaciously held beliefs, assumptions and prejudices about the past.

Until the day comes if ever, history will not suffer its loss. 


Nest up, two Chicago monuments that may be soon headed for the chopping block, stay tuned...

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Bottom Line

All America is abuzz over monuments these days. That's exciting to me because I have a big interest in public sculpture and the artists who create it. In fact I just wrote a piece celebrating the anniversary of the introduction to Chicago of its famous, some might say infamous, Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. The irksome thing about many of the articles I read about the Picasso (as the untitled piece is referred to in Chicago) is the assertion that the fifty foot icon was Chicago's first foray into public art. True, according to the articles, there were already dozens of sculptures in public places in Chicago, but those were merely "effigies of famous men and women... (that) somehow spoke of history rather than art".*

That came as news to me as I have a great appreciation for the work of important nineteenth and early twentieth century American artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Lorado Taft, Edward Kemys and a host of others whose work is widely represented in Chicago's parks and other public places, as well as The Art Institute of Chicago and its sister museums throughout the country.

It is true that the public works of these sculptors go beyond being "art for art's sake." They are monuments that represent the passions, the ideals and the values of the people who constructed them and the communities who embraced them. That is why in a place like Chicago you will not find public monuments to King George III, Kaiser Wilhelm, Vince Lombardi, or Robert E. Lee. Strangely enough however, Chicago does have an honest to goodness Confederate monument as well as a monument to Benito Mussolini, but more on them later.


Earlier this year I wrote no less than three posts on the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in the south. You can find the posts here, here and here.

In case you've been living in a cave for the past few months, in a nutshell, the controversy stems over whether these statues which many people view as a glorification of slavery, should remain in the public places of honor where they have stood in some cases for over a century, or should be moved to museums or other institutions where they can be viewed as historical artifacts, rather than monuments to an institution most people find repugnant.

In all three posts I punted, suggesting the decision to keep or remove the monuments should be left entirely in the hands of the communities where they reside, as those are the people who have to live with and answer for the statues. I still believe that, however an event has subsequently occurred that has been a major game changer.

After the city of Charlottesville, VA announced its plans to remove an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its place of honor in the center of town, two weeks ago, groups of white supremacists from all over the country gathered in Charlottesville to ostensibly protest the community's choice to take down the statue. In reality, the "Unite the Right" rally as its organizers called it was, in the words of the online news magazine Vox, "a belated coming-out party for an emboldened white nationalist movement in the United States." They were all there, the alt-right, the Nazis, various insundry right wing militias, the Klan, you name it, all bent on spreading their venomous hatred.

As with a planned neo-Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s, the ACLU defended the rights of the hate groups to march on the basis of supporting the groups' freedom of speech. Unlike Skokie where the Nazis, satisfied with their court victory and the attention it gave them, cancelled the march in the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb, this time there was strength in numbers, and the hate groups staged a torch-lit evening march where they chanted Nazi slogans and other racial epithets, while marching through town, ending up at the quadrangle of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia campus. The next day the collection of deplorables encountered resistance from thousands of counter-protesters, culminating with a Nazi-sympathizing Ohio man ramming his car into a group of people, killing one woman, and injuring nineteen.

The response was swift and immediate from the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe. His unequivocal message to the hate groups who gathered in Charlotteville from far and wide was this: "Go home. ... You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you."

President Trump also quickly decried the violence: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred (and) bigotry... " But he wasn't willing to place blame adding: "...and violence on many sides." Then as he often does, he broke from script to emphasize the point in case we missed it, repeating once again,  "on many sides."

Trump was roundly criticized for his refusal to call out the white supremacist groups by name as being responsible for the violence that day. White supremacists on the other hand, danced a jig in Trump's honor, celebrating his waffling. Shortly after Trump's remarks, a neo-Nazi publication had this to say:
Trump's comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides!
So he implied the antifa
(short for anti fascists) are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
To emphasize what many Americans were feeling after Trump's measured response, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, had some chilling, pointed words at the president: “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,”

Two days later as the criticism against him reached a fever pitch, Trump read a statement naming the KKK,, the Nazis, and other hate groups as the perpetrators of the terrible events of Charlottesburg. Many Americans, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief at the hint that the President of the United States might indeed have a backbone.

The very next day Trump had yet another change of heart. During a press conference that was intended to focus on another subject, reporters quickly got around to the subject of Charlottesville. Why they asked, did the president take so long to get around to making the statement against hate groups. Trump gave a rambling response saying that he wanted
to make sure, when I make a statement that the statement is correct, and there was no way — there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts,
Now the ability to make measured responses to events without immediately jumping to conclusions is a good thing; equanimity such as this is normally a positive quality of a president, But given Trump's disposition for jumping to conclusions, especially when it comes to groups of people he has no time for, these words were problematic. Trump, a man of little or no reflection, given to making grand, unequivocal pronouncements, was now equivocating about Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, two groups that everyone by now has a definitive opinion about, one way or the other.

In the press conference Trump, contradicting what he said just the day before, went back to his original argument that blame for the violence in Charlottesville can be attributed to both sides. When pressed on the issue, Trump insisted that many of the protesters were in Charlottesville, not to commit acts of violence, but simply to protest the removal of the statue of General Lee:
You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
Many criticized Trump's comments as setting up a "moral equivalence" between hate groups and the people who would confront them. Much has been written on that topic so I'll pass on that issue for now.

But Trump also had some interesting things to say that day about the removal of the Confederate statues. When asked if the statues should be removed, President Trump said this:
I would say that's up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located."
That comes remarkably close to what I've been saying for the past several posts.

Then Trump addressed the slippery slope of the precedent of removing statues that are offensive to certain groups of people:
George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? ...are we going to take down statues to George Washington?
 How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? ...he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
Again, in my posts I expressed concern that once you begin removing statues that are offensive to people, where do you stop? Simply put, a case could be made that every public monument could be offensive in one way or other to some group. As could be predicted, the last few weeks have seen calls to remove statues all over the country, including George Washington (because he owned slaves), in Chicago, Peter Stuyvesant (because he was anti-Semetic), in New York City, and even the ball player Ty Cobb (who is wrongly assumed to have been a virulent racist), in Detroit.

At least from his comments at that press conference, Trump and I were on the same page, well sort of, regarding Confederate monuments; he sees a problem with the precedent of removing them, yet accepts that it should be left up to the individual community or jurisdiction to decide what to do with them, as do I.

But later on August 17, he doubled down and took what seemed to be un unequivocal stance on the issue of the monuments when he tweeted this:
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...

...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!
So much for being on the same page with Donald Trump. This is a complicated issue and both sides raise valid points. The problem with the president's remarks it that he fails to even mention the other side which states what frankly is the bottom line of this issue, that these statues, however beautiful or well executed they may be, represent in no uncertain terms for a significant portion of the population that has to live with them, the enslavement, terror and degrading circumstances under which their ancestors lived for many generations.

Despite all that, those statues have remained in place with few people seriously suggesting they be removed until one fateful day in 2015, when a white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston, SC. and murdered nine people, simply because they were black. The movement to remove the Confederate flag from public sites began shortly thereafter as the murderer used the flag as the backdrop of his portrait on social media. The Confederate monuments soon followed in the sites of activists.

The first major purging of monuments took place in New Orleans a couple months ago. The mayor of the Crescent City, Mitch Landrieu, gave an impassioned speech that articulately spelled out his city's rationale for removing its Confederate monuments. I wrote about his arguments extensively in my first post on the subject. 

Unfortunately, this country has become so divided that people have taken unequivocal stands on one side or the other of the monument issue depending upon their ideology, and rational arguments on both sides are flat out rejected, not on their own merit, but simply on the grounds that they do not support the "correct" side.

But after the events in Charlottesville a few weeks ago. we can throw all the academic arguments about keeping the statues where they are, out the window. Now that the Confederate monuments themselves have become rallying points for white supremacists, no one can legitimately make the claim that these objects are not clear and present symbols of hatred, intolerance, injustice and inhumanity. With that, communities all over the South are making plans to remove their monuments post haste, even those that until two weeks ago, resolved to keep them. Thanks to the homicidal efforts of the white terrorists who descended upon Charlottesville, it's likely that most if not all Confederate monuments in public spaces will soon be a thing of the past.

The bottom line is this: no one wants to be the next Charlottesville. As long as Confederate monuments become rallying points for Klan and Nazi rallies, and yes people on the other side bent on vandalizing them, the practical matter of getting rid of the statues to prevent all that, trumps any argument about preserving history and setting bad precedents. Expect to see middle of the night purges of Confederate monuments all across the south in the coming months.

Despite what the president says, you don't have to look very far for the culprit. So long as these statues attract hate groups like flies to dog poop, towns all over the South will be getting out their shovels. If that upsets you, turn to your friendly neighborhood alt-right Klansman or neo-Nazi and tell him point blank, "you're precisely the reason why we can't have nice things."

In my next post, using some examples from my hometown, I'll explore why these issues are not new and how heaven forbid, we can use a little reason to not only address what to do with these monuments sensibly, but maybe even learn a little something along the way. Stay tuned.


* Franz Schulze, from Chicago's Museum Alfresco, the Introduction to the guidebook, Chicago's Public Sculpture

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Those Were the Days

Ah nostalgia. How many of us think back to the good old days of our youth, when life was so much simpler? Yesterday I had the sweet experience of walking with my mother in the neighborhood in which both of us grew up. She and I passed the homes of childhood friends whose names we still could recall. We passed the church where both of us were confirmed and the parish school which both of us attended. That particular walk for me evoked so many memories of my childhood in the sixties, and one song in particular which brings me back every time I hear it to that exact place, Chicago's Palmer Square.

The song for what it's worth, is Get Together as recorded by a band called the Youngbloods. You may know the song from its refrain:

Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together, try and love one another right now.

Corny lyrics to be sure when you read them on a computer screen, but if you were around fifty years ago and remember what we were living through at the time, you might get the message it was trying to convey. I came to know the song as it was used in a TV public service announcement put together by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, as a call for brotherhood in a time of war and deep divisions in this nation and around the world. I also vaguely remember, back in the days when the guitar mass was the real thing, that song being sung in the church my mom and I walked past yesterday.

Despite the difficult times that inspired the lyrics of Get Together, the song brings to mind happy times of my life in that neighborhood which we left in the summer of 1968, exactly at the moment of the Democratic National Convention which was taking place only a few miles away. Of all the tumultuous moments of the sixties that I clearly recall, that convention, the anti-war demonstrations that accompanied it, the shameful actions of Mayor Daley on the convention floor, and the riots in part caused by over-zealous police that took place in Grant Park, are a blur to me as we were busy schlepping all our worldly possessions from one part of the city to another as all the mayhem was taking place.

Save for the chance to once again see the people I loved who are now gone, I don't have any particular urge to revisit the sixties. Between the the terrible racial divide, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, the burning cities, including Chicago, the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation, and all the other really bad stuff that was going down, the world really did seem to be spinning out of control, even to someone not even a decade old.

Yet it was the time of my childhood, and triggers such as the song Get Together bring me back to a time and place where I was safe at home with my parents on Humboldt Boulevard where I always felt I belonged, despite all the turbulence that was going on around us.

Such is nostalgia, the longing for a better, happier time, when you were safe and home, even if the reality was quite different.

I think that was the appeal to so many Americans of Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." It evoked for them a time, somewhere in the distant past, and a place, this country, that was simpler, happier, healthier, and stronger than it is now. The Great America for them was what Humboldt Boulevard and Palmer Square before August of 1968 were for me.

The problem is, those idyllic times and places never really existed, other than in our minds. My mother reminded me yesterday just how bad the neighborhood had become in the late sixties. Despite my parents' urge for unity and brotherhood, a family needs to take care of itself first, when it no longer feels safe in the place it once called home. So we became yet another family who fled the city for the suburbs during that terrible time.

As I mentioned, the sixties was a period that saw tremendous suffering around the world. Things settled down in the seventies to some extent with the end of the Vietnam War and the slow but gradual acceptance, at least in theory, that people of every color deserved their fair share of what this country had to offer. But the seventies also saw economic stagnation due to the energy crisis and other factors. International terrorism was on the upswing.  It was a time of  tremendous cynicism after Watergate and other political scandals. As a result, we didn't seem to believe much in ourselves anymore. The Reagan years of the eighties saw a decline of cynicism and a resurgence of prosperity for some, but the administration's emphasis on big business and its acceptance of making money at whatever cost, jump-started a trend toward the ever growing gap between the haves and the have nots in this country. The nineties saw even more prosperity, if you were in the right line of work. It was a good time to be in the tech industry as computers became an ever increasing part of our lives. The downside is that computers and other technologies did away with countless jobs that disappeared forever. Then came 9-11 and with it, the collapse of the old world order which imperfect as it was, at least enabled us to tell our friends from our enemies. After that came the economic collapse of 2008, from which many of us still have not recovered, despite the slow economic progress of the last eight years.

That in a nutshell is the state of this country during my 58 years on this planet, some good times, some not so good times, and some really shitty times.

Ah but at least we had good jobs, Trump supporters would point out, where you didn't need a college degree in order to raise a family while still maintaining a decent standard of living. That may be true, but if  my condensed Readers Digest view of the history of America since 1960 is any indication, you'll realize that the handwriting had been on the wall for a very long time. The country and the world have been changing at a lightning rate during my lifetime, (I've been around for a long time), and if you're not willing to change with it, you're stuck holding the bag. In fact the country has been changing rapidly ever since it was founded. Good, well paying jobs such as telegraph operator, blacksmith, mule skinner, log driver and lamp lighter were lost to new technology in the early twentieth century just as so many jobs were replaced by newer technology in the late twentieth century. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Still, millions of Americans bought into Trump's promise of bringing jobs and greatness back America. Who in their right mind could be against that?

Skeptics pointed out that you can't stop progress and turn back the hands of time.

So how's he done so far? Well he's proved the skeptics wrong. Donald Trump has indeed succeeded in turning the clock back, taking us back to yesteryear and bringing back things we never thought we'd see again:
  • Despite all we learned from Watergate, I haven't seen so much outright distrust of a president since Richard Nixon, and quite honestly, the potential trouble Trump has gotten himself into, makes Nixon's indiscretions look pale by comparison. 
  • Just over a week ago we were talking about the real possibility of using nuclear weapons on another country and that country using them on us. I haven't heard that kind of talk since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 
  • Last week, Nazis and Klansmen openly marched and chanted slogans of hatred right in the heart of Thomas Jefferson country. I remember when Nazis wanted to march in the largely Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois in the seventies, but back then they were only a small fringe group who were the objects of scorn and ridicule by virtually everyone. Once they won their legal battle to march, they chose not to, out of fear of the consequences. To find a time when there was so little resistance to this kind of people, going all the way up to the President of the United States, you have to go back to the 1920s. 
  • Trump has tried to implement immigration bans that also harken back to the twenties, and through his rhetoric, has inspired fear and hatred of foreigners the likes of which we haven't seen since the Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century.
To be fair, job numbers and the stock market are up since Trump became president, and naturally he is taking all the credit, despite the fact that those numbers have been steadily increasing for the last several years under the previous administration. As we all know, what goes up must come down, and with his focus on de-regulating business and the markets, the chances of a catastrophic collapse harking back to 1929 may very well be looming in our future.

The good news is that maybe we won't have to worry about that because we'll be engaged in a nuclear war and we'll have bigger problems.

I'm not so big on nostalgia but I kind of miss the time, say about a year ago, when we didn't have to worry about this shit.

Man, those were the days.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picasso Thing

This week during a ceremony in Daley Plaza commemorating the golden anniversary of the work of art known to every Chicagoan simply as "The Picasso", Mayor Rahm Emanuel called its introduction to the city a "critical inflection point in Chicago's story."

Almost fifty years ago to the day, that point wasn't lost upon Mike Royko, who in his Chicago Daily News column published the day after the unveiling of the fifty foot sculpture by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, called the event, not without a trace of irony, the "cultural rebirth of the city." True to his curmudgeon spirit, Royko continued:
Out there in the neighborhoods and the suburbs, things probably seemed just the same. People worried about the old things·would they move in and would we move out? Or would we move in and would they move out? 
But downtown, the leaders of culture and influence were gathered for a historical event and it was reaching a climax with Mayor Daley standing there ready to pull a ribbon. 
Thousands waited in and around the Civic (now Richard J. Daley) Center plaza.
They had listened to the speeches about the Picasso thing. They had heard how it was going to change Chicago's image.
When Mayor Richard J. Daley struggled, then finally succeeded to free the artwork from its shroud, Royko wrote that the Picasso was greeted by a spattering of applause, followed by lots of silence.

Royko, like many Chicagoans at the time, wasn't particularly taken by the sculpture.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be. 
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures. 
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
Mike Royko was no art critic. But he was one of the best observers and chroniclers of the life and times of this city that you will ever read. He was writing at a time when this city was bitterly divided over race, class and ethnic identity which he alluded to in the column. That would all come to a head the following year as the city burned during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Royko pulled no punches when it came to describing his passionate distrust of Mayor Daley, the Chicago Democratic Political Machine, and the moneyed establishment, all of whom exerted their considerable influence upon the city and in doing so, among other less charitable things, made the Chicago Picasso possible. To him, the Picasso was nothing more than a bone the powers-that-be threw at the people of this city, a silver lining within a cloud of greed, corruption and arrogance that controlled Chicago. And Royko famously made a living out of pointing out, as Jerry Garcia once sang, that every silver lining has a touch of gray. On someone's comment that the Picasso captured the "spirit of Chicago", Royko picked up on that point and ran with it:
...from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it. 
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good. 
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible... 
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary. 
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit. 
Picasso has never been here, they say. You'd think he's been riding the L all his life.
I suppose few Chicagoans at the time read that deeply into the Picasso; they just shook their heads and failed to see what all the fuss was about. After all, to them it was just a big pile of rusty metal that didn't really look like much of anything recognizable.

Fifty years almost to the day after its unveiling, the rusty Cor-Ten steel of both the sculpture and the building it stands in front of, has developed as promised, a lovely rich, deep bronze patina, Today taken out of the context of the time, Royko's words and the feelings of the average Chicagoan sound philistine and sacrilege. The Picasso is every much as beloved, and part of Chicago's iconography as the lakefront, the Water Tower, the Chicago Theater marquee, the Wrigley Building, and the Marshall Field clocks.

Just as most locals never set foot inside the Art Institute, Symphony Center, or other institutions of so called "high culture", I dare say that Chicagoans deep down consider the Picasso if not beautiful, at least something to be immensely proud of. Just as those esteemed institutions, the Picasso has put this city on the map of respectability. After all, being regarded only as the city of  hog butchering, Al Capone rat-a-tat-tat, and corrupt politicians, gets a little old.

Young man "owning" the Picasso
If you don't obsess over the silly question of what it is supposed to represent, the Chicago Picasso is indeed, to my eyes anyway, a beautiful object in its own right. The form of its graceful, sensuous lines set against the ninety degree angles of the surrounding buildings creates a powerful study in contrast, especially when the light is just right. But that's only the half of it. The Chicago Picasso has done what none of the other great works of public art that were inspired by it have managed to do. It has become part of the urban fabric, and in doing so, has transcended its role as a work of art.

When you think of objects of art in a museum, chances are you take them dead seriously, your immediate reaction is to look and not touch. If that thought doesn't happen to occur to you, there are guards to remind you. Likewise, for a while, the Picasso was cordoned off with chains so you could not get too close, presumably to prevent the natural inclination of children sliding down its base. Removing those barriers played a big role in humanizing the work.

In his speech the other day, Mayor Emanuel said the Picasso belongs to all of us, and that is certainly true. Today without the chains, day and night you can see children and adults as well, using the sculpture as if it were an enormous playground apparatus. It's hard to imagine that Pablo Picasso, himself a child at heart, would have objected. Less exhilarating but equally poignant is the crevice underneath the base which serves at times as a shelter for homeless people.

Daley Plaza, Chicago's agora, is hands down the city's most democratic public gathering space. True to the democratic nature of the place, during his speech the other day at the foot of the Picasso, there were demonstrators shouting Mayor Emanuel down.

As Daley Plaza's centerpiece, the Picasso has borne witness to important moments in this city's history for the last half century. Joy, tragedy, exaltation, frustration, anxiety, hope, and every other imaginable emotion have all played out in front of the sculpture. The plaza is the site of political rallies, demonstrations, celebrations, memorial services, ethnic festivals, a wide range of musical and dance performances, farmers markets and the annual Kristkindlmarkt, the most authentic German Christmas market anywhere this side of the Maginot Line.

In 1983 I was in front of the Picasso at a pep rally for the Chicago White Sox who were about to enter the post-season for the first time in my memory. Four years later I was there when the official announcement was made that Mayor Harold Washington had just died. A few weeks later I was present in the plaza as Eugene Sawyer, a good man who was appointed mayor by the City Council in the most shameful of ways, lit the city's official Christmas tree. I saw Lech Wałęsa there in 1989, soon after he led Poland to a peaceful revolution from its Soviet subjugation. I was there in the late seventies when Iranian students demanded that the Shah be ousted from power. I attended many more events, both happy and sad, at the plaza, that have faded into the recesses of my memory, save for the presence of the great statue and its somewhat ironic role  (given its iconoclastic origin) as a stabilizing force mediating the array of events taking place around it.

Today as we read and hear stories of the anniversary, reporters are still eliciting opinions from passersby over what they think the Picasso represents. For all his shortcomings, miscues and malaprops, Richard Daley the Elder set everybody straight when he said, hitting the nail right on the head: "with modern art, you're just supposed to use your imagination."

At the unveiling fifty years ago this coming Tuesday, either Daley, or his speechwriter came up with another remarkably prescient line:
We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.
Powerful words spoken by a man not known for profound utterances, how can it be you may ask that Richard J. Daley of all people, son and lifelong resident of the once hardscrapple, provincial neighborhood of Bridgeport, was instrumental in bringing the Picasso to Chicago?        

Daley prided himself on being a builder and Chicago is filled for better or worse, with roads, bridges, buildings, projects, institutions and monuments that are the direct result of his power and influence over his twenty one year reign as mayor of Chicago. In that respect, he was no different from other big city mayors of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Speaking from experience having lived through the era, people back then had a profound faith in the new; in those days the word "modern" was an unequivocally positive term.  No matter how banal, uninspiring, or purely awful it may have been, anything modern was unfailingly preferable to anything old. That is precisely why there was so little objection to the wanton destruction of some of Chicago's greatest buildings during that era, virtually all of them replaced by vastly inferior modern buildings.

That the Picasso was strange or didn't conform to Daley's expectations of what art should be didn't matter in the least, the fact that it was important and new was all he cared about. When he became mayor in 1955, Richard J. Daley could very well have not known Pablo Picasso from a hole in the ground, but shortly after learning that Picasso was the most important Modern artist around, Daley became the artist's biggest Chicago benefactor. And Picasso returned the favor.

The story goes that the architect William Hartmann of the architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill first approached Picasso in 1963 at his studio in Paris, Hartmann allegedly mentioned to Picasso that he was offering him a "site for the most important piece of sculpture in the United States." Never known for a small ego, those words were music to Picasso's ears. Back in Chicago, a man of no small ego himself, Daley was quite pleased, giddy in fact when Hartmann relayed the story that Picasso asked him if Mayor Daley was still in charge of Chicago. Despite the fact that they never met in person, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Hartmann reportedly offered the artist a check for a cool $100,000 for his efforts, which Picasso turned down. The sculpture would be Pablo Picasso's gift to the people of Chicago.

The work itself was the result of several years of sketches and three dimensional maquettes, some of which were displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966. While the exhibition wasn't overwhelmingly attended, word got out that this would not be your grandfather's public monument. There was a bit of resistance to the construction of what for the time was a groundbreaking project. One alderman, a Republican of course, famously suggested that a statue of Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks be erected instead. There were also rumblings about Picasso's communist sympathies. But Mayor Daley put his foot down and insisted the project go forward, reportedly saying: "Leave the art to the artists, and the politics to the politicians."

Maquette and preliminary drawing of Chicago Picasso
that were exhibited at the Art Institute in 1966,
one year before the unveiling of the sculpture
In the end, it may seem impertinent to lump Chicago's Picasso with the expressways, universities, housing projects and all the other major public works projects built under Mayor Daley's watch, but there it is. Richard J. Daley forever changed the face of Chicago and not all of it for the good. Mike Royko was right about Daley about 95 percent of the time, but he fell a little short with the Picasso thing. It is a piece that defies categories. It can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. To Royko it may have been a metaphor for all that was evil and corrupt about the city. Conversely, it could be a beautiful object representing the more edifying aspects of the spirit of Chicago.  Or if you are so inclined, it could simply represent a woman, an Afghan Hound, a horse an insect, or most likely all the above. Like all good art, it makes you stop and ponder. You may not have the answer but sometimes all that's important are the questions.

Beyond its own merits, the Chicago Picasso opened the door, the flood gates actually, for public arts projects to flourish all across the city and the country. Ironically in this, the "year of public art", officially proclaimed by the current mayor in honor of the anniversary, we are learning of the possibility that some of the works of art mentioned by Rahm Emanuel in his speech in front of the Picasso, are themselves endangered, either by the elements, or by removal. It turns out that of all the works of public art in Chicago, only the Daley Center Picasso is protected by landmark status, ensuring that kids of all ages generations from now, will still be able to slide down its base, and that it will continue to stand watch over the ebbs and tides of the flowing river of Chicago history.

It didn't happen very often in this town, but in the case of the Chicago Picasso, Mayor Daley got the last laugh. This coming Tuesday morning, the fiftieth anniversary of the unveiling, I'll be looking toward the sky and tipping my hat to Hizzoner.

Ya done good with this one Mr. Mayor, real good.