Saturday, May 27, 2017

How to Remember Robert E. Lee

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.

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