Teddy Roosevelt won’t get a statue in San Luis Obispo. Neither will anyone else

Model of proposed Teddy Roosevelt monument by sculptor Paula Zima.
Model of proposed Teddy Roosevelt monument by sculptor Paula Zima. Courtesy Photo

There’s always a moment in dystopian science fiction when we watch, with horror, normal life turned inside out. I thought the worst was from “Fahrenheit 451.”

“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”

He laughed. “That’s against the law!”

“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”

I changed my mind on Tuesday, when I watched the SLO City Council vote to sanitize history by removing the people from it.

Henceforth, public art may not represent any individual.

A mural about the Civil Rights Movement would be forbidden to show Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or local hero Maxine Lewis, “the biggest champion that the underprivileged people of this city ever had.” (The council cut off her funding in 1981.)

The History Center exhibition that displayed the identity photos of dozens of Chinese people from Chinatown’s past—a past demolished by another council in 1950 — could never appear on city property. Which the History Center is.

Why? Because, in the council’s reasoning, humans are flawed, and depictions of individuals who have changed our lives, inspired or touched us would have to come with a disclaimer. It’s unclear whether monuments like the 9/11 memorial with 403 upright rods representing 403 individual emergency responders killed that day will be dismantled. Under the new policy, it could never be built.

The policy will allow monuments to concepts, under the dubious notion that concepts are purer than people. A conceptual monument to Civil Rights might portray a conceptual black person — which is, ironically, what ill-meaning white cartoonists have long done, not wanting to imbue with individuality another race.

But maybe the council has in mind a sign flashing “Diversity!” in Mitchell Park. It’s hard to say; the council did not hazard what a monument to a concept would look like. It did commission a report from intern Rachel Balella, who looked hard to find any city daft enough to impose a monuments policy.

In America, monuments have traditionally emerged from below — like speech in the public square. Authoritarian countries impose history from the top. Hence, Central Park in New York has an oddball, admittedly unrepresentative, but infinitely correctable collection of statues: Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington were recently added; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are on the way. It’s meaningful to locals and a huge tourist draw. Conversely, after 1989, Budapest hauled down its Communist-era statues and moved them out of town to a creepy museum called Statue Park.

The one thing Belella didn’t find, anywhere, was a policy limiting monuments to concepts or barring recognition of the significance of individuals and our identification with them. Because it’s a terrible idea. Most of us think in terms of individuals and stories rather than abstractions. When faced with overwhelming abstractions, we all translate them to individuals and stories, like the 403 first responders.

The image of Rosa Parks, words of Chief Joseph, words and image of Anne Frank: Their humanness touches us as abstract discussions never will. In 2018 people flocked to selfie themselves with life-size photos of suffragists in Trafalgar Square. The greatest memorial of our time, by Maya Lin, individuates every fallen soldier of the Vietnam War, calls us to experience their and our humanity.

The logical extension of banning individuals from monuments is effacing them from plaques. Ken Schwartz and Queenie Warden will have to go.

We’ll replace the pictures of historic San Luis women in City Hall with framed concepts, de-name Buchon and Eto Streets and erase their namesakes’ impure place in our history. (The council did it once already, as soon as the Etos were shipped off to Manzanar.) And it makes no sense to landmark buildings of historic but flawed people. It does to the National Register of Historic Places, every state and most towns — but not San Luis. We’re posthuman.

This policy hammer was wielded to squash the fly of a proposed a monument to Teddy Roosevelt in Mitchell Park, where in 1903 he introduced the notion — not just to us but the nation — of leaving an environmental legacy: a truly historic moment that took place here. Roosevelt preserved a quarter of a billion acres, including Los Padres.

Roosevelt said some appalling things about Native Americans. As a descendent, in part, of the Rama Chippewa, I don’t take that personally but see why some might. It’s a hard discussion. But avoiding the discussion by issuing a fiat against individuals would condemn the plans of the yak tityu tityu yak tilhini to publicly remember — with her photograph and voice — their ancestor Rosario Cooper, who preserved the Northern Chumash language. Thank God this memorial will be on private land and the Copelands are more enlightened about letting people choose how to preserve their culture than the council. Memorializing “indigenous language preservation” while avoiding mentioning Cooper is nonsense, if you spend any time thinking about it.

In the council’s defense, they didn’t spend any time thinking about it but reached their decision in a few minutes after listening to three speakers talk about other issues, since nobody could have anticipated a decision so bizarre. But we’ve all done bizarre things to avoid tough discussions.

I hope the council has the grace and humor to back out of this policy, which defies utterly the spirit of the First Amendment. That it will bring us national press for jumping off the deep end is small compensation. I hope the council undertakes substantial consultation with historians, artists and other stakeholders and is guided by regional and national standards. Because sacrificing humans on a purifying pyre of abstraction guts our community’s meaning, as absolutely as bulldozing Chinatown to put up a parking lot.

James Papp is an architectural historian, co-owner of heritage tourism company SLO Walkabout, and member and former chair of the City of San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee.

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