Politics & Government

Should monuments be allowed in SLO at all? Mayor Heidi Harmon wants to talk about it

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon wants to carefully consider a policy on monuments, perhaps prohibiting them because of potential community divide.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon wants to carefully consider a policy on monuments, perhaps prohibiting them because of potential community divide. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon wants to talk about monuments — and she’s raising the question of whether they’re a good idea to have in the city at all.

Harmon has called for a future City Council discussion to consider policy regarding monuments that honor specific individuals. A local group has ongoing plans to erect a sculpture of late U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt in Mitchell Park, inspiring Harmon to ponder in a social media post concern over “more monuments of white men.”

“I think by allowing monuments, it’s essential to understand there’s a certain lifting up of the person,” Harmon said. “Implicit in a monument is appreciation, validation and commemoration. I think we need to decide whether this is necessary? What issue is it really trying to highlight and illuminate?”

Harmon said protests of monuments in southern U.S. states, where Confederate leaders are memorialized, have led to bitter divide.

Locally, it’s not always clear how historical figures may offend certain groups, Harmon said, but offensive symbols should be avoided.

In reference to the planned Roosevelt statue, the Northern Chumash Tribune Council wrote the council a letter in January, calling for San Luis Obispo to “stand against racism and violence towards the Indigenous communities, and stand with the Native Peoples building a stronger partnership for the future.”

Paula Zima 2018 maquette (2).jpg
Theodore Roosevelt monument proposed for Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo. Model of Roosevelt statue; photo courtesy of Pierre Rademaker

They wrote that Roosevelt’s tenure as president was marked by his support of the Indian allotment system.

“Although (Roosevelt) earned a reputation as a conservationist — placing more than 230 million acres of land under public protection — Roosevelt systematically marginalized Indians, uprooting them from their homelands to create national parks and monuments, speaking publicly about his plans to assimilate them and using them as spectacles to build his political empire,” the letter noted, citing Indian Country Today.

In response to concerns raised by Harmon, the group organizing the planned statue issued a recent Viewpoint in The Tribune stating it would include an interpretive sign along with the project including Roosevelt’s views on race.

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Legacy Grove Committee said it would include “a frank description of Roosevelt’s overall record on racial matters, including the evolution of his views on Native Americans and other minorities. We invite our Native American neighbors to help us write this narrative.”

roosevelt statue
ARTS Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, is proposing a public art project that would commemorate President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to San Luis Obispo in 1903. Sculptor Paula Zima’s preliminary sketch shows Roosevelt seated on a boulder and dressed in casual clothing. Paula Zima Courtesy of Arts Obispo

The City Council discussion is expected to be at least six months away, after city staff conducts research and policy development, holds conversations with community stakeholders and the public, and has an advisory body review, said Shelly Stanwyck, SLO’s director of Parks and Recreation, in an email.

“Given that, we haven’t put anything on the council agenda forecast but will, once we get a better sense of timing,” Stanwyck said.

The city currently has statues of unnamed Native American people on Prado Road and of Chinese railroad workers at Railroad Square. But no monuments specifically honoring notable individuals are believed to exist in the city, Stanwyck said.

Plaques have been posted in the city, however, such as one near San Luis Obispo Creek honoring early 20th century SLO businesswoman and civic leader Queenie Warden.

Another plaque at Bishop Peak Reserve memorializes Swiss immigrants James and Sophia Goirgi Gnesa, who emigrated to SLO in the 1870s, and whose children donated 120 acres of land.

Harmon said talking through a potential policy will better help formulate how the city might address concerns about the associations a historical figure might have.

In their letter, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Legacy Grove Committee thanked Harmon for challenging them to “improve the project and engagement with the general public.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.