Lees Circle. A proposal for New Orleans

Last month, I participated in a group show at the Antenna Gallery in New Orleans entitled monu_MENTAL, which

sought to revise and revive one’s experience of local monuments.  Many a New Orleans monument has skidded out of sync with contemporary mores, if not out of the local consciousness.  Not content with these prominent displays of anachronism, we wonder what these monuments bring to our city today.  Can these hunks of bronze be shifted, if only in our imaginations, to bring awareness to contemporary issues?

Bruce Lee in Mostar

My participation in the show was based on a joking post I had made on Neighborland, a wonderful website for civic participation, about changing the Robert E. Lee statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans to a Bruce Lee Statue. My joke had a basis in a couple of different ideas, the first of which is the general annoyance that many northerners such as myself (both living in the south and outside it) have with symbols of the confederacy, especially in a majority African-American city like New Orleans. The second was the knowledge of a Bruce Lee statue that had been installed in the city of Mostar, Bosnia following the war there.

Marx: "How much will it cost to remove the statues?" Engels: "Sit down, I'll tell you"

In Mostar, a city divided ethnically and religiously and largely destroyed during the break-up of Yugoslavia, a contest was held to find a monument that was acceptable to the inhabitants following the fighting. Bruce Lee won (I’ve been told that Brittany Spears was second, but can’t confirm that). Seeking to find any kind of meaning, the folks who put on the competition decided to claim that the Hong Kong Person/American actor was a symbol of ethnic solidarity (though later one ethnic group claimed that the statues fighting stance faced their section of the city). Still, the somewhat ridiculous image of Bruce Lee standing on the town square in Mostar had stuck with me.

Once I had been approached to turn the joke into a proposal for the show, I began to think a little more about the role that monuments play in our urban spaces. Several years ago, I had read a book by a sociologist named Jennifer Jordan entitled Structures of Memory: Understanding Urban Change in Berlin and Beyond. The book sought to understand how spaces in a city like Berlin became memorialized, given the twentieth-century history of the city. In a city where all spaces have historical meaning, how do some become “authentic” spaces of collective memory? In the past, in a city like Berlin (or nineteenth century New Orleans, or post-revolutionary Tehran) memorialization was essentially a monopoly of the state. In our increasingly radically decentralized neo-liberal cities of today, the task of spatial memory falls increasingly to what Jordan terms “entrepreneurs.” In essence, the ways in which a space becomes memory is dictated by those who care the most about creating that memory, and who have the resources to promote that view.

I began to become uncomfortable with completely removing one monument in favor of another, no matter how much I may personally disagree with the collective memory that that statue promotes. Indeed, while I was living in Berlin in the early 2000s, there was a significant push to remove the monuments of the DDR (East Germany). The government of Berlin (which, like Germany as a whole, is dominated by the West, based on both economic and demographic issues) was moving to remove communist streetnames and monuments from the East of the city. Ossies (people from the East) pointed out that a similar movement to remove symbols of the authoritarian royal Prussia was not even considered. In the end, the Easterners managed to preserve their streetnames and monuments only if the name was ethnically German, a compromise that seemed designed to please neither the right nor the left.

So, how could I, an outsider to New Orleans in any number of ways (not the least of which is the fact that I don’t live there), propose to remove one monument for another?

In the end, I decided to suggest an expansion of the monument, rather than a removal. I proposed to add statues of other famous Lees (the most common surname in the world). Harper Lee, Spike Lee, Bill “the Spaceman” Lee (for all the Red Sox fans), Stan Lee and any number of others could be added, creating a monument for any number of identities while also promoting a certain sense of humanity as a family and encouraging residents to think about the emotional and political power that a representation of any human being carries.

Some additional reviews of the show, as well as some of the other entries are available here and here.

* Update: After writing this piece, I learned that Lee Circle had transformed over the last week as someone painted an impromptu memorial to Trayvon Martin on the base of the Lee Statue.