In my last post, I neglected to mention the historical analogue between Confederate monuments and temperance fountains. Like many cities, DC has a temperance fountain located halfway between the US Capitol and the White House, placed so that tourists in the 1800s could have a drink of water instead of slipping into a saloon or a drink or few. In the 1920's, temperance turned to prohibition, and many of the fountains placed around the country were removed or demolished. They had become symbols of oppression. Fittingly, DC, with its historic reputation as a sober town back when people had faith in government, kept its fountain. It even outlasted the old local neighborhood's urban decay of the 1970's and 1980's, and eventual revitalization into a must-see area. Today, instead of being filled with empty cans of beer and malt liquor, the fountain again flows with water. In DC, there are still vestiges of sober conformity; a dating site recommends that a person who is a researcher by day and painter by night call himself an analyst, rather than an artist.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Saturday, May 27, 2017
In the space of several weeks, New Orleans removed four monuments, even demolishing at least one. Such a sweeping action spearheaded by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with consent of the City Council, generated less debate on the national scale than I expected. I was very surprised that the city had the authority to remove landmarks, as I thought that they would be protected by state, even federal law. The federal courts declined to interfere with this “local matter”, and the monuments were removed in the dark of night with less legal battle than removing an old tree.
These monuments happened to commemorate Confederate leaders and events; and were erected during the heyday of Civil War veterans. They were the South’s response to Grand Army Plaza and General Sherman statues. In Norfolk, Virginia there is a Confederate memorial erected in 1951. At first glance I thought it was a bad symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, but upon closer reading I discovered that the memorial commemorated the last meeting of centenarian veterans. In some parts of the country and in some communities, the thought of Confederate statues generates revulsion. But living on the border of Virginia, I grew up around intentional and subtle memorials to the Confederacy, such as the Civil War battlefields, replete with reenactments, curio stores, Robert E Lee’s house on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Lee-Jackson Day, and roads with high rise buildings named after Confederate generals. Recently, the Washington National Cathedral, part of the Episcopal Church, decided to alter a stained glass window that portrayed a small Confederate flag. That is their right, but it sparked debate in preservation-conscious Washington. Virginia has taken a keen interest in ensuring that the historic city of Alexandria, bordering Washington, keeps its memorials. It makes for unsavory news headlines in the age of clickbait. Around a city full of statues and monuments to controversial figures; several statues to the Confederacy is just ‘is’.
Among the four demolished monuments was a wholly inappropriate memorial to the Battle of Liberty Place extolling the virtues of lawlessness. It was a low key-memorial and the first to be removed. As the Associated Press writes, it commemorates “A rebellion in 1874 by whites against a biracial Reconstruction-era government in New Orleans. An inscription extolling white supremacy was added in 1932”. This statue was devoted to racism; and had no redeeming artistic value, it was rightly demolished. The others commemorate Confederate leaders, which some find to symbolize racism.
I looked at pictures of the condemned memorials in New Orleans. Several were grimy and looked to be neglected. That was how Pennsylvania Station looked in 1963 when the “obsolete” Pennsylvania Station of 1908 was razed, to the horror of historians, the art community, and the educated public. The airy atrium and iconic building, everything above street level, was replaced with the Madison Square Garden stadium and an office building, maximizing use of what was seen at the time as wasted real estate. What existed below street level, the utilitarian train tracks and platforms, was preserved. A small concession was made to preservationists, and the iconic eagles, which used to be on the train station’s facades, landed at college campuses and public places around New York City.
The fact that Pennsylvania Station was demolished proved to be a turning point on how our nation treated old but iconic buildings. It was a turning point , not a clean break, as we see in our churches. Parishioners, many struggling immigrants from the Old World, put their pennies together to build great churches in our cities. Some churches have been sold or demolished, usually after a period of postponed maintenance, due to insufficient funds. Other times, there was “wreckovation” that came with the “Spirit of Vatican 2”: While many parishes were able to accommodate the new mass without alterations; other church leaders jumped on a bandwagon and planned renovation using the vague motive of symbolism about moving forward in a new direction. Similar attitudes prevailed in other denomiations as well.
Then the Tridentine Mass returned after 20 years’ absence. This is the old mass which the old Catholic parishes were built for. There is nothing more beautiful than the combination of ritual and place, the old mass being celebrated at the old altar, as it has been for a century or more, skipping one generation. In many neighborhoods with old parishes, gentrification is in full swing. The flavor of life of ethnic communities is being replaced by generic residents and bland chain outlets. In light of this, churches, statues and monuments create a sense of place; as they have been for the past centuries.
What is a Washingtonian to judge how New Orleans wants to forget the unpleasant past? Folks visit New Orleans for the cultural difference, where preserving the past has less importance than enjoying the present. The people of New Orleans make the French Quarter what it is; the buildings are decoration. Let the good times roll in the Big Easy.
Monday, April 24, 2017
I saw a story in the national news about a young woman who saved herself from doom as a lost motorist. Looking for a shortcut into the Grand Canyons, she followed her GPS into a large cattle ranch, and ran short of gasoline. Her Girl Scout skills got her out of this predicament, when a police helicopter spotted her stone sign. Reliance on technology without perspective- can be dangerous.
Still going in and out of Dubai and am grateful to have gotten the important sites out of the way- the Burj Khalifah- the world’s tallest building. I had some questions, like why the global investors are supporting tremendous, speculative growth and construction in Dubai; changing a regional city into a global power. I found an answer: what is happening in Dubai is not unprecedented: New York and Chicago boomed a century ago, on the backs of immigrants. I try to identify a lively American neighborhood- or Westerner town- in each of the big cities I spend time in. They have some of the comforts of familiarity and the fusion of two cultures. Something like the Chinatowns in American cities. Now Dubai is interesting to me because Western tastes, and expats, are so profuse throughout the city-state.
432 Park Avenue in New York City was recently completed with 104 residences. It’s remarkable since the condo building has the height of the World Trade Center, and the controversially bland exterior was apparently inspired by an art deco wastebasket. But, the views from inside are fantastic and the multimillion dollar condo units were bought up by the global elite, making the supertall building a financial success. The building has drawn social criticism for being the pinnacle of ostentatious wealth. Why this building among the hundred tallest skyscrapers in the world? In many cities the tallest buildings are office buildings. While these gaudy towers might be signs of corporate affluence and extravagance, a little bit of the wealth trickles down to support a white-collar middle class workforce, who fill the inner offices and cubicles. Even the most secluded of firms have secretaries. In other places, the tallest buildings are hotels, and size of these hotels require pricing at least some rooms for the upper-middle class masses. When the tallest buildings are luxury residences, it is hardly inspirational, demonstrating the extremes of inequality: the uber-wealthy owners and tenants who are waited on by low-income service sector workers. The middle class are kept outside the doors. In the ideal world, the most iconic buildings would be somewhat more egalitarian.
Friday, April 7, 2017
When I got to Dubai, I thought I would be greeted by omniscient prayer calls from minarets, camel taxis, snake-tamers, pipists and belly dancers. This is not an Aladdin fantasy; indeed I had read stories of the Middle East from crewmembers onboard WWII Liberty Ships. In light of U-Boats roaming the North Sea, the Persian Gulf became the preferred route to bring supplies to the Soviet Union. And for decades after the war, the region was a quaint reminder of the past, with kings and the supremacy of religion; yet increasingly important on account of oil.
Fast forward to the present day. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, is a diversified economy, focusing on international trade. There were no snake charmers greeting me, although the gold souks are reminiscent of fabled Arabian opulence. The working class is Southeast Asia- Indians and Pakistanis- who drive the buses and make the food. Foreigners are welcome, and coming from around the world, they take middle-class jobs and practice their Westernized or Orientalized lifestyles. The local elite are not ashamed to mention that the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was designed by an American firm. If there was a country to describe America’s grim future in the minds of American nationalists, it might be the UAE. Transnational globalists do world trade and go sightseeing in Dubai; there is a strong Islamic influence; a religion shared by the nation’s elite and much of the immigrant working class. And furthermore, foreigners not only ‘take’ working-class jobs, but middle-class ones as well. This fact makes me very interested in how the UAE- and other Persian Gulf States- are able to maintain a good standard of living for their own people. In the US and Southern/Eastern Europe, one primary concern of nationalists is well-paying jobs for born citizens. Yet halfway around the world, there are nations, steeped in Islamic culture, which welcome foreigners, to allow set-asides for things like alcohol and western feminist thought.
I am familiar with the respect given on military bases to morning colors and evening retreat. Regular business stops, and so does traffic. I was ready to give this regard to prayer call, but by observing the regulars in Dubai, strict observance of the prayer call was not required. The best prayer call I heard was inside the Dubai Mall, and few heeded its warning, as the ‘globalists’ continued dining and shopping while observant locals made their way to the prayer room.