Friday, September 27, 2013

Back then...

I was in Prague for the first time in early 1993, barely three years after the end of Soviet hegemony in the country at the time known as Czechoslovakia. The city was filled with life and as such, packed with tourists. Since I never experienced Prague before the Velvet Revolution, I had nothing to compare it to. Suffice it to say, when I returned home there were many people who told me how visiting the city was much better back in Communist times: fewer tourists and tourist traps, more locals and businesses catering to them meant that back then the place had more charm and was "more honest and real." Of course those folks didn't have to live in a country in the grips of a totalitarian regime; the locals I spoke to didn't exactly share the sentiment that things were better in Prague in the good ol' days.

Likewise I've never been to Havana, but people suggest I go there before it is "ruined", presumably by the imminent but as yet  unfulfilled fall of Communism in Cuba, accompanied by the relaxing of tensions between the island nation and the United States, and the inevitable crush of tourism that would bring.

It doesn't take a genius to understand that tourists are attracted to interesting, readily accessible places. It's also clear that being a boon to the local coffers, local governments do whatever they can to encourage tourism. There is a tipping point however once a place becomes saturated with tourists. Often times, so much energy is devoted toward catering to tourists at the expense of the local population, that a place loses its soul. There's even a word for this phenomenon: Disneyfication. The word, obviously derived from the highly successful theme parks owned and operated by the Disney Corporation, is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as follows:
the transformation (as of something real or unsettling) into carefully controlled and safe entertainment or an environment with similar qualities.
The comments section at the bottom of this piece reflects the public's ambivalence about the transformation of the mother of all Disneyfication projects, which transformed the familiar New York City landmark, Times Square. Here's another piece on new Times Square. Historically the center of the city's entertainment district, the "Great White Way" began its steady decline after the Depression as gambling, prostitution and other nefarious activities gained a strong foothold in the neighborhood. Reaching its nadir in the 1970s and early 80s, Times Square became well known for its low life, as strip joints and sex shops sat cheek by jowl alongside the area's iconic theaters and restaurants. Because of its high profile as a tourist destination, the seediness of Times Square galvanized the general public's perception of the overall decline of New York City.  

As the city's boom of the mid-eighties took shape, the reformation of Times Square found itself high in the sights of local government and by the nineties, much of the area was gutted. The sex industry was banished as were residents deemed less than desirable. Old, private businesses were taken over by national chains, and the State of New York took possession of several of the venerable theaters, either demolishing them, or renovating them beyond recognition.  To preserve the frenetic atmosphere of the area, zoning laws were put in place requiring a minimum amount of density of illuminated signs. Other "improvements" to Times Square included the elimination of vehicular traffic on the once busy thoroughfares that define the area, and perhaps the ultimate symbol of a PC, born-again Times Square, a recent law making the neighborhood officially smoke free.

Today Times Square is so squeaky clean you could practically eat off the streets.

Yes you can now even bring your kids to the new Times Square, although it wouldn't rate very high in my book of Big Apple attractions I'd like to show my own children. To me without any edge whatsoever, it's more like a Las Vegas re-creation than the place I first visited with my mother back in the mid-sixties that captivated me with its no-holds-barred vitality, highlighted for me by the half block long billboard of a bottle of Gordon's Gin pouring its contents into into a glass. Today like the ban on smoking, signs such as these advertising anything that could be perceived bad for you would be strictly forbidden.

The old Times Square was incomparable.

If I had to rate new Times Square with similar entertainment districts around the world that I've visited, I'd rank it just slightly above Hamburg's Reeperbahn, which underwent its own Disneyfication several years ago, but light years behind London's West End, which did not. Even Time Square's bombastic light show pales in comparison to the jaw dropping experience of Tokyo's Ginza District.

Back home although not quite so dramatic, Chicago underwent its own Disneyfication process over the last four decades or so. When I was a child I owned a copy of a USA picture book intended primarily for European tourists. I distinctly remember fifteen to twenty pages of the book were dedicated to New York City, containing images of the usual suspects such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Statue of  Liberty, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Central Park, and of course old Times Square. There were several photographs of Washington DC and San Francisco, of the National Parks and other famous tourist destinations in this country. And there were exactly three photographs of Chicago, the obligatory shot of the Grant Park skyline, a passenger train arriving presumably at Union Station, and one picture of the Stockyards. The lack of attention to the Windy City shouldn't come as much surprise considering that with the exception of conventioneers, Chicago wasn't much of a tourist destination back in the day.

Between that time and now, much has changed as the old reliable industries once the backbone of this city's economy pulled up stakes and moved away one by one. Tourism in recent years has become an important cog in Chicago's economy and the city has been transformed by it, for better or worse. I was reminded of this the other day while reading a thread on a Facebook page I belong to devoted to Chicago's past. The gentleman (I'd guess in his mid-sixties) who began the thread, wrote about how he enjoyed fishing off the docks at old Navy Pier back in the day when it was all but deserted. Today Navy Pier is Chicago's number one tourist destination and this particular individual won't set foot in the joint. He also lamented the Disneyfied nature of Millennium Park and other popular sites about town. This set off a maelstrom of rants that were divided between folks who see new Navy Pier as a vast improvement, and folks who tenaciously cling to the past. One woman used the opportunity to voice her opinion about the bygone, distinctive upscale shopping on the Gold Coast (presumably Michigan Avenue) which has now become in her words, a "tourist trap."

Even I got into the act. Here verbatim is my somewhat officious comment:
I sympathize with the good ol' days argument up to a point. Yes in many ways I too liked this city a lot more forty years ago. The problem is that once upon a time, rail was king and we were the crossroads of the nation. We were the hog butcher of the world, we made cars, steel and all kinds of other stuff that are now made someplace else. Unglamorous as those things were, the lifestyles of most of the folks shopping in those unique "upscale" Gold Coast shops were in one way or other made possible by those industries. We may not like all the Disneyesque tourist attractions that seem to be everywhere these days but the bottom line is that tourism today is one of the engines of our economy and as bad as things may be, trust me, without the tourists and the money they bring into this city, things would be much worse.
Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. As longtime readers of this blog have come to expect form me, I'm not going to put myself on the line by saying the "Disneyfication" of our cities is a good or a bad thing. Let the truth be known, I'm just as ambivalent as the mix of folks who commented on the Times Square post.

You see, despite the fact that I consider old Times Square, (including its sleaziness), old North Michigan Avenue (including its snootiness), and old Navy Pier (including its emptiness), all to be infinitely more interesting places than their contemporary counterparts, the fact remains that all three are insanely successful as far as attracting people and money back into their respective cities.

There is an old adage that suggests you can't argue with success. That's not at all true, you can argue with success.

Winning the argument on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beating a dead horse

The Spanish/American poet and essayist George Santayana is perhaps best known for his axiomatic quote:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Notoriously oblivious to the past, in the name of what we call "progress", we Americans are famous for trudging ahead, never looking back to reflect upon our mistakes, committing the same thoughtless acts over and over again.

And in doing so, we are continually reminded by cautious observers of the Santayana quote which despite how true, has become a tiresome cliché.

It shouldn't be at all surprising that we Americans behave as we do, after all, many of us are descended from folks who by choice discarded the old ways of life. leaving their old world behind in search of something new, never looking back.

It's part of our DNA.

I was reminded of this as I drove past Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital building yesterday as it begins to be covered up with the shroud of scaffolding signaling its doom.

In my previous posts on the subject, I've noted how similar the reaction to the planned destruction of this unquestionably significant building has been to previous battles we've had in this city over other great buildings that were lost, most notably the Garrick Theater and the Old Stock Exchange Buildings, both by Louis Sullivan.

Today, hardly a soul in this town doesn't mourn their loss, saying how absurd and short-sighted was their wanton destruction. Yet back in the days when something could be done to save them, there was little public support for the small, yet vociferous band of brothers and sisters who wrote passionately, signed petitions, marched, went to court, in short did everything they humanly could to preserve a significant part of this city's architectural legacy.

To the general public, these buildings, crumbling after years of neglect, thoughtlessly remodeled through the years,  were tired and old, representing a bygone era that nobody cared to remember. "New" and "Modern" in those days were highly sought after ideals, and architecturally speaking those words translated into steel and glass, not stone and terra-cotta.

If Louis Sullivan was considered an important architect, well we had plenty of his buildings still around, so nobody would miss one or two.

Photograph by Hedrich Blessing
Flash forward some fifty years and all we have left of the architect that Frank Lloyd Wright called his "lieber Meister," are the Auditorium Building, the Carson Pirie Scott Building, and a sprinkling of some lesser works. The vast majority of his oeuvre, including two of his greatest works mentioned above, are lost.

Goldberg's Prentice, like the Old Stock Exchange and the Garrick, has been altered in ways that detract from its original form. It wasn't maintained properly, and as these things go, its design speaks of a time, the 1970s, that we no longer consider appealing except as examples of kitsch; think bell bottoms, platform shoes and the Gremlin.

Despite protests in front of the shuttered former women's hospital where countless children (including mine) came into this world, public interest, including that of architecture enthusiasts regarding the imminent demise of Prentice, is mild at best. When it was built, Prentice was considered a bold, innovative statement, a daring example of Modern Architecture. Today, not even forty years old, it has become dated. Unfortunately, the building is in that in-between, no-mans land of a period, too old to be modern, to new to be charming or historic. We've lost many great buildings in this town for exactly that reason.

And what did Mayor Rahm Emanuel say in his support of the demolition of old Prentice? He said that while Prentice was a significant building and Bertrand Goldberg was an important architect, we have other buildings of his in town.

After all, progress is progress.

And after fifty years of progress, we still haven't learned a damned thing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Monumental City II

In my first installment on the monuments of Washington DC, I distinguished between sites that played a direct role in history versus the ones that are far removed in time and place from the subject they honor. Ford's Theater of course represents the former. It is a site preserved for eternity, just as it was that dreadful night when Abraham Lincoln was shot in his box seat above stage left.

An example of the latter would be the Jefferson Memorial, a building built so long after its intended subject, that even the land it sits upon did not exist in Thomas Jefferson's time. The monument was dedicated in 1943 on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. To get a more immediate glimpse into the life of the founding father and third president of the United States, you needn't go far. The main building of the Library of Congress, named for Thomas Jefferson, contains the largest collection of Jefferson documents anywhere. On public display you can view a reconstruction of his expansive library. Or you could go down to Charlottesville, Virginia and its environs. There you will find written upon his tombstone (which he designed), his epitaph (which he wrote), noting the accomplishments of which he felt the proudest:
Here was buried 
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia 
Note the glaring omission.

Jefferson's monument in Washington makes up for that omission, as it sits directly across the National Mall from the White House, separated only by the Washington Monument, equidistant between the two. I don't believe there was ever a monument built in Washington DC that was not controversial for one thing or other and the Jefferson Memorial certainly is no exception. From the Japanese cherry trees that were sacrificed to make room for it, to its not so fashionable (for the time) classical revival architecture, to the out of context quotes on the walls intended to bring Jefferson in line with the administration in power when it was built, this monument never really got the respect, nor the visitors that the other big monuments in the city have enjoyed over the years. It doesn't help that it's a bit off the beaten path, you have to really want to go there to visit it. The one time I did make the trek to visit the great man in his marble mausoleum, frankly I was left a little cold, especially after visiting the Lincoln Memorial down the road apiece.

Fortunately you can appreciate it just as well if not more from a distance. An exquisite jewel box of a building, the Jefferson Monument perhaps is most famous for providing the backdrop in early April for the blossoming cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin. The building couldn't have a finer lineage. John Russell Pope, who built many of the neo-classical landmarks in Washington, designed it to resemble Jefferson's own Rotunda of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which itself was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, for my money one of the greatest buildings ever built. Not having to protect its contents from the elements, the Jefferson Monument is completely open, prompting the viewer from a distance to line up the gargantuan statue of Jefferson by Rudulph Evans within the "sights" of two of the monument's 54 columns of the Ionic order, as I did in the photograph above.

The Jefferson monument is the first familiar building to greet visitors to the city when they arrive by the Metro from the National Airport as the train crosses the Potomac. It completes the quartet of landmark buildings, including  the US Capitol, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, that radiate around the spindle of the Washington Monument with the National Mall as the east-west axis. It fits in so well with the rigid style and geometry of the city, it would be difficult to imagine Washington DC without it. Furthermore, despite its limited value as a place of historical significance, architecturally speaking, it's simply one of the most beautiful buildings in town.

As they say, if it didn't already exist, someone would have to invent it.

Until fairly recently, except for cherry blossom time, the Memorial was one of the only attractions in West Potomac Park, other than the lovely park itself that surrounds the Tidal Basin, an artificial body of water that serves to regulate the flow of the mighty Potomac. Since 1997, three monuments to great Americans have been unveiled around the Tidal Basin.

The "Stone of Hope"
The most recent of these is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial which was dedicated in October of 2011. As monuments go, this one is most in the spirit of Mount Rushmore, that is to say, a heroic image hewn out of a block of stone. I touched on it briefly in my first Washington monument post, and in another piece devoted to Dr. King here. But I hadn't actually set eyes on the monument until my most recent trip to Washington last week.

I must say, little surprised me seeing it in person, it pretty much looks just as it does in the pictures. Entering from the north, the visitor passes between two enormous stone monoliths, labeled "The Mountain(s) of Despair", toward a third rock labelled "The Stone of Hope." The names were inspired by a line from King's famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington: "...out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope." Dr. King's likeness standing thirty feet high, is found on the Tidal Basin side of the Stone of Hope. He gazes to his right off into the distance toward the south, arms folded with a rolled up piece of paper in his left hand, perhaps the "I Have a Dream" speech. Extending in a semi-circle off each Mount of Despair are two granite walls into which are carved quotations from the civil rights leader. A stream of water separates the visitor from the wall.

A quote carved into the Stone of Hope originally read: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Like the quotes on the Jefferson Memorial, this one was taken out of context. Here is the original quote from Dr. King, spoken shortly before his assassination in 1968:
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
Critics, including the poet Maya Angelou, claimed the abbreviated version misrepresented King making him look arrogant. Unlike the quotes misrepresenting Jefferson on his own memorial, the original inscription was sandblasted off the stone, which as you can see by the clear slab off Dr, King's left shoulder in these photographs, has been left blank, for now.

If most of the classic Washington DC monuments can trace their influence back to ancient Greece and Rome, the King Monument appears to go farther back, to ancient Egypt. Whether the effect is intentional or not, the two rear stones placed behind the head stone suggest lion haunches, making the whole ensemble when viewed at the proper angle, a little reminiscent of the Great Sphinx at Giza.

The King monument is certainly a powerful tribute to the slain civil rights leader. His image carved in stone by the artist Lei Yixin, has already attained iconic status, at least judging from the number of images of it found on tee shirts worn at the 2013 March on Washington. It is an appropriate heroic monument dedicated to one of the few truly heroic figures of our lifetime, well my lifetime at least.

But I've said it before and I'll say it again, no monument to Martin Luther King, no matter how stately or well executed, will ever be a more powerful and moving experience of the man than standing in his footsteps on the Lincoln Memorial a short walk away, on the spot where he delivered his great speech at the 1963 March On Washington. There, looking out toward the National Mall with the Washington Monument and the US Capitol off in the distance, in the center of the top step leading into our nation's greatest shrine are inscribed the words: "I Have a Dream." Quite often you will find a rose placed near this simple tribute to Dr. King.

No explanation is given, none is necessary.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, only a couple hundred yards to the west of the King monument, couldn't be more different. Instead of finding a heroic figure cut from a piece of rock, you are greeted by a fragile looking figure wearing a wrinkled suit, and sitting in a wheelchair. The sculpture by Robert Graham of the 32nd president at the entrance to his monument was not part of the original design. The centerpiece of the design is a massive statue of the seated president toward the back of the monument, (see the photograph below), his cape covering up what is presumably a wheelchair. FDR who contracted polio in 1921 and was left paralyzed, famously went to great lengths to keep his affliction from the public. This caused a great debate as to how to portray him in his memorial in a much different time. Even people with strong ties to disability issues disagreed about the proper way to portray FDR, some fearing that showing him in a wheelchair would imply he was a hero simply because of his disability. However the sentiments of those who felt it important to show the president as he actually was, won out, and the Graham statue was unveiled in 1991, four years after the monument opened. On the wall behind the statue are inscribed these words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
Franklin's illness gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons -- infinite patience and never-ending persistence.
The Roosevelt monument designed by Lawrence Halprin, sits on a sprawling seven acre site divided into four sections, each section representing one of the president's four terms in office. Water is a recurring theme in the monument. From a single drop representing the Great Depression to a torrent representing World War II, each section uses a water feature to symbolize the distinct nature of the term it represents. The symbolic arrangement of stones, along with quotes from FDR were also carefully thought out to bring home the point. Topping it all off, each section features works of art relating to the theme of each term, created by a number of artists:

  • George Segal contributed three free standing works to the memorial all dealing with the Depression: The Fireside Chat, The Rural Couple, and The Bread Line.
  • Leonard Baskin created a bas-relief of Roosevelt's funeral cortege.
  • The stone carvings of FDR's and Eleanor Roosevelt's words were executed by John Benson.
  • The above mentioned sculpture of a seated Roosevelt with the cape is the work of Neil Estern who also gave us the free standing sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt, who deserves, and probably one day will get a monument of her own.
  • In addition to the statue of FDR in a wheelchair, Robert Graham also created a bas-relief of the president waving to the crowd during his first inaugural. Perhaps the most evocative work in the memorial, Graham's thirty foot long relief entitled Social Programs, is comprised of square panels subdivided into smaller squares each one depicting a different program. These panels are repeated in negative form on columns in the center of the section devoted to the Great Depression.  
The Bread Line, by George Segal

Social Programs, by Robert Graham

Roosevelt with his dog Fala, by Neil Estern, the original centerpiece
of the FDR Memorial

Given the choice between the two neighboring monuments, I'd have to say I prefer the FDR memorial to Dr. King's. The artwork in the FDR tribute is more diverse and compelling. Lawrence Halprin wisely chose to keep his creation in a park setting, leaving many of the established trees on the site, adding to its beauty, as well as shading the visitor from the brutal Washington summer sun. While it's a complex, some would say overly fussy tribute to its subject, the FDR monument doesn't command an overburdening feeling of reverence, as its somewhat bombastic neighbor to the east does. The sight of children playing in and around the rocks and waterfalls only adds to the experience as opposed to the King memorial where I saw a woman admonishing two parents whose young kids were splashing in the water, behaving like, well, like kids. And as I grow older, I have come to truly appreciate the addition of benches, where I can sit down and take it all in.

Besides the other, arguably superior monuments that already existed in Washington prior to the building of the Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Memorials, there is another monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the city, one that conformed exactly to his wishes. It is a simple marble slab measuring about four by six feet wide and three feet high that sits in front of the National Archives Building. Roosevelt told his friend, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter, that he would like a monument to himself measuring no bigger than the size of his desk, and sitting in front of the National Archives building. In 1966, that's exactly what he got.

In my previous posts on the monuments of Washington including this one on a proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, I've noted the trend since the success of the Vietnam Verterans Memorial, to build ever bigger, more complex monuments. One that has bucked the trend is the third recent monument built in West Potomac Park, the George Mason Memorial, dedicated to one of the lesser known founding fathers of this country. Situated near the monument to his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson,the Mason monument also resides in a park setting. A simple reflecting pool sits before a pergola under which is a bench where a statue of the subject sits cross legged, inviting you the visitor to join him. Faye B. Harwell designed the site and Wendy M. Ross created the sculpture. Stone tablets inscribed with Mason's words sit on either side of the bench. It's an utterly charming monument in marked contrast to its rather pompous neighbors.

Unfortunately it's unlikely that the George Mason Memorial will set a trend for more modest, thoughtful Washington DC monuments, as the ones on the drawing board seem ever more ambitious. As long as the "they have theirs, now I want mine" element runs through Washington, we can expect bigger, more extravagant creations to be built in our nation's capital.

Judging from the latest monuments built in Washington, what the new monuments probably won't be, is more powerful, moving or edifying. Designers could take a cue from the successful monuments of the past, and from the poet Robert Browning whose poem, Andrea del Sarto, called the Faultless Painter, contains the axiom, later adopted by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "less is more."

On my recent visit to Washington I had revelations of two of the monuments I wrote about in my previous posts that will stay with me for a long time. As I entered the portion of the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial where the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was taking place, a gentleman who I'd say was in his mid to upper seventies walking beside me had a look of deep concentration on his face. Assuming he was trying to listen to the events taking place broadcast over the distant loudspeakers, I asked him if he could make out who was speaking at the time. Without breaking his glance ahead and slightly to his left, the man said to me: "No, I'm just staring in amazement at that monument over there, it looks like something Hitler would have built." He was looking at the National World War II Memorial, opened in 2002. Although I never made the connection, the man had a point. The pillars, triumphal arches, and water fountains of that monument seem to speak to the glory of war, and little about reflection and loss. Something similar could have indeed come out of the sketchbooks of Albert Speer, the official architect of the Third Reich.

Then after the event on the Mall, I had the rare opportunity to pass by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while it was closed to the public, due to the festivities.

On a normal day, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would be standing in front of the wall at any given moment, searching for the name of a loved one, or simply taking in the magnitude of the sea of names representing American soldiers who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. 

Without all the visitors, the interaction between the Frederick Hart sculpture The Three Soldiers, seen on the right of the photograph above, and Maya Lin's Wall on the left is even more striking. Once I thought the interaction of the visitors with the Wall was the only source of its power. But the other day with the monument empty, it took on a new dimension. Like Robert Graham's portrait of FDR in a wheelchair, the statue of the three soldiers was not part of the original design, but added after people objected to the fact that only the dead were commemorated in Lin's monument. 

I believe that as is the case with the wheelchair-bound FDR, the Hart sculpture has become an essential element of its monument, adding the necessary touch of humanity to the work. In the case of the Vietnam Memorial, seeing the three soldiers gazing into the void of the black wall cut into the earth, perhaps looking for the names of their fallen comrades, or even their own names on that wall, is a chilling, yet poignant experience. 

As with seeing the words "I Have a Dream" carved into the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, no explanation is given, none is necessary.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The March on Washington, 2013

National Mall, Washington, DC, Wednesday August 28, 2013

The year was 1965 or 1966 and I was about seven years old, playing at my friend's house while his parents were watching the news on TV. A report came on about a protest march led by Martin Luther King Jr. My friend's parents (both immigrants from Europe), called Dr. King a troublemaker and added something of this nature: "why doesn't that colored guy just mind his own business and let people live in peace?"

Back at home I recall parroting those sentiments to my parents another time Dr. King appeared on TV. I'm happy to report that both my mother and father (he also European by birth), in no uncertain terms repudiated my friend's parents' blatant bigotry, and assured me that Martin Luther King was indeed a very good man who was fighting a righteous battle on behalf of people that did not receive a fair shake in this country.

Those are my very first memories of Dr. King. Not long after that he would be dead and like President Kennedy before him, he would be elevated to the status of sainthood, at least in the minds of people my age who came to know both men more in death than in life. Not only that, his I Have a Dream speech came to be exalted into the realm of sacred American texts.

Last week as the 50th anniversary of that speech and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom approached, having no personal memories of the event, I asked my mother about her memories. She told me that she supported the march, yet like many people across the country, had apprehensions about the possibility of violence. She also recalled my grandmother who, while supporting the spirit and ideals of the march, objected to the means, especially the idea of Catholic priests and nuns marching. "It's just not their place" she said.

About two weeks ago it occurred to me that I would be in Washington DC at the same time as the golden anniversary of the march. Not only that, it turned out my work schedule allowed me to be present at the exact moment marking 50 years to the minute when Dr. King delivered his most famous speech. At that time, church bells would be rung throughout the country and President Obama would deliver a speech from the exact spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood, overlooking the National Mall. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be present at such an important historical event. After all, while people at that march a half century ago certainly might have predicted a change coming in America, I doubt that few if any in their wildest dreams would have imagined that fifty years from the moment Dr. King got up to address the multitudes on that sweltering Washington afternoon, the first African American President of the United States would stand on that very spot to commemorate the event.

The 2013 march was surely one for its own time, not in any way (except for the location) intended to be a re-enactment of the original. Perhaps the biggest difference between the march fifty years ago and the one this past Wednesday was its focus. More than 200,000 persons, the overwhelming number of them black, gathered in 1963 to demand that the laws of this country apply equally to everyone; that the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution would be fulfilled.

In the words of Dr. King: hundred years later (after the Emancipation Proclamation), the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Those words were not the exaggerations of a firebrand painting a desperate picture only to prove a point. On the contrary; if anything they grossly understated the situation at the time. As correctly pointed out by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the original march was not merely an event, it was "the middle of a struggle." So called "Jim Crow" segregation laws were still in place all over the South, imposing separate and anything but equal facilities for people of color. Poll taxes still existed preventing poor people, mostly black, from participating in the most basic civil liberty, the right to vote. When people spoke up about the injustice, police stepped in using any means they felt necessary to prevent American citizens from exercising their constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and speech.

Things weren't much better up north. Although there were no official segregation laws in place, restaurants, hotels and other institutions refused to serve black people. Rocks were thrown at Dr. King in Chicago when he marched through white neighborhoods demonstrating the lack of equal housing in this city. Dr. King said of his experience here:
I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.
So the trepidations of folks concerning trouble during the march were not unfounded. It took very hard work on both sides, the organizers of the March and the City of Washington and its police force, to make sure the 1963 demonstration would be peaceful.

Where there was a definite anti-establishment edge to the original March on Washington, (President Kennedy watched passively from the comfort of the White House a few blocks away), the organizers of last week's event had to drive establishment figures away with a stick. Two former presidents made the cut, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton joined Obama on the dais, along with the First Lady and President Kennedy's daughter Caroline. Ties to the original march included members of the King family and US Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker at the 1963 March. And yes, Oprah Winfrey was there. It is a telling symbol of the changing landscape of America, that by far the richest, most main-stream establishment figure sitting up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day was an African American woman.

Unlike 1963, practically every human rights cause under the sun was represented this year. This may have diluted the message but let's face it, times have changed in fifty years:

The following day in his column in the Washington Times called "Washington Sketch", Dana Millbank bemoaned the fact that "2013 didn't live up to 1963." In his column:
  • He expressed his feeling that the preponderance of causes at this year's rally watered down the original intent of the march. 
  • He noted President Obama's predicting his speech wouldn't be as good as his predecessor's fifty years ago, then went on to suggest the president fulfilled his prediction. 
  • He mentioned the hundreds of vendors, mostly African American, selling chintzy souvenirs many of them featuring the images of not only King and Obama, but also of Treyvon Martin. 
  • And he also noted that the slick production values, VIP seating sections, and many other features of this year's event, ran diametrically opposed to the grass roots nature of the original. 

Everything he said was true, but that was exactly the point of the event. Today while the issue of civil rights for people of color is still a burning one, it certainly is not the only one. While much work has yet to be done, significant progress has been made since 1963, as evidenced at this march from the independent entrepreneurs selling their wares all the way up to the gentleman sitting today in the Oval Office. Beyond freedom and justice for people of color, the March of 1963 empowered a tidal wave of movements dedicated to justice and freedom for all groups of people. 

No one was ever under the delusion that the 2013 model of the March on Washington would be a replay of the original, as it would be impossible to match the spirit and urgency of that much different time. On the contrary, this event was a celebration not only of the 1963 event, but of how far we have come in fifty years, without ever losing sight of how far we have yet to go. Many people believe that the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the turning point in the civil rights movement; perhaps, (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of the struggle for equal rights in the United States.

To that end, it is certainly fitting that we celebrate the great event's fiftieth anniversary.

As a celebration I'd have to say this event was a rousing success. As you can see from the photographs, the group who gathered on the National Mall last Wednesday was made up of people of all shapes and sizes,  a diverse group of races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and sexual orientations, representing the depth and breadth of this country. 

Perhaps as Mr. Millbank wrote, there were "no speeches likely to live beyond a news cycle or two." But that hardly matters. In the end, more than the group of dignitaries gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the lasting image of the 2013 March will be the crowd of Americans who spontaneously assembled together in our nation's most hallowed spot, to share Dr. King's dream that the promise put forth by the fathers of our great nation might one day be fulfilled. When all the words spoken on that platform will long have been forgotten, the spirit of that day will remain...

... and what a magnificent day it was.