It’s a bit of an understatement to say that public monuments have been in the news a LOT over the last few years; specifically, those that memorialize events or historical figures considered by many to be controversial.
From the horrible violence centered on the planned removal of a monument to Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Va., to the debate here in Louisville over statues dedicated to John B. Castleman and George D. Prentice, towns and cities across the United States are having a difficult but necessary conversation about the role such monuments play in their communities.
The common debate is often centered on the history of a particular statue or memorial; that they are historical artifacts and should, therefore, be left in their original context; that moving or removing them would be “erasing” or “altering” history.
Such arguments certainly have merit and should not be minimized or ignored; many monuments, either by their age or the role they played in the history of their community, are by definition historical artifacts. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the figures they portray, they must be given the respect all historical artifacts deserve. They should therefore not be damaged or destroyed (seriously, whoever keeps throwing paint on the Castleman statue, please stop); for better or worse, they are a part of the record of our community’s history and should be preserved as such.
But a conversation heard much less often, but is just as important, is how historic statues and monuments should be considered in a modern context. What role do they play in our community in the present? How do they affect the way the world perceives us; how do they affect the way we see ourselves? It is very important that such questions be incorporated into any debate on whether a statue or monument should be left in place or removed. Why? Because of the role they play in a single, central concept in the modern American city: the public square.
In any city or town, the public square is the beating heart of civic life. It can take many forms; a literal square or plaza, but also the courthouse lawn, a popular park, a major intersection, any place that brings people together.
The public square is a multifunctional space, serving many important functions. It’s a social gathering place, where friends and family can congregate and connect with one another; it’s a public forum, where citizens can advocate for or protest different political policies or events; it’s a marketplace, where restaurants and businesses come to serve a critical mass of customers. But just as importantly, it serves as a place of honor.
The statues and monuments erected in the public square are not just there for decoration; they are placed there to honor the people or events they depict. It’s like displaying a trophy, award or treasured possession in your living room; you put it in a prominent place because you want visitors to your home (be they family members, friends, or strangers) to see it because it tells them something important about you.
Monuments placed in the public square are there to make a statement to any who see them, be they visitors from outside the community or citizens who live there: “We honor this man or woman or organization, because we agree with the ideals or causes they exhibited. We believe that the values they represent are the values of our community.”
It is therefore crucial that we as a community take great care in choosing who or what we honor with a place in the public square because any choice we make sends a message about who we think we are; both to the greater world, and to our own citizens.
Should any one statue or monument currently in place in Louisville be removed? That is not for this author to decide, as it is not for any one person to decide; it is a decision that we as a community, as a city, have to make together. It’s a difficult one, as past experience has shown, but it is crucial that we approach that decision with the right mindset.
Yes, many of the statues at the heart of this debate in our city are historic artifacts and deserve to be treated with the respect historic artifacts are due. But if we are to decide whether they deserve to be honored with a place in our city’s collective public square, their historic significance cannot be all we consider.
If a monument represents a person or event whose values meshes with who we are as a community in the present, if we find it worthy to speak for us to all who visit our city’s “living room,” then it should remain in place.
However, if the values that motivated a statues placement in the public square are no longer held by our community, are no longer deemed a message that should be sent to the greater world or to our own once-marginalized citizens, then that statue should be removed from its place of honor. It should be moved to somewhere else, be it a museum or other publicly accessible place, where we can still learn about the history it represents without honoring it.
Porter Stevens is a Louisville native currently living in Lancaster, Pa., working as a community planner for Lancaster County. Stevens still maintains a strong interest in urban issues in his hometown and in learning about ways to revitalize its urban core. He has written previously for Insider Louisville and was a contributor to Broken Sidewalk.