Mural Arts’ Monument Lab wants to know, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”
It’s a great question, but I want to suggest a few more to guide the city as it conducts this research phase of what could one day become a great public design project, and to help us understand the challenges of erecting a truly meaningful monument in Philadelphia.
A monument is a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone or something notable or great. But I like the Latin root better: moneo means “to remind”, “to advise” or “to warn”. So, this beginning raises the question: Are these monuments intended for us, the current citizens of Philadelphia, or are we building them as a warning to (or guide for) our future citizens?
What is the problem with our current monuments?
Rizzo aside, what else is going on in the Philadelphia Monument Ecosystem? Should we take more care when accepting and displaying monuments gifted by private groups? Should we wait ten years after a person’s death or an event’s occurrence before they can be immortalized as a monument? Should we actively uncover people and events that have been ignored until this point?
Our current monuments are monotonous. Around ten percent of monuments depict women, and only ten of those monuments are of actual women, not religious or mythical figures. The remaining twenty-two are mythological or biblical figures, and fifteen of those are of Mary. Sharon Hayes’ participatory Monument Lab sculpture, If They Should Ask, collected the names of women who should be recognized. I urge everyone to dive into this list and explore the possibilities, like Carolina LeCount, a civil rights leader and Octavius Catto’s’ finance. And let’s be sure to remember Winnie Harris in ten years.
Art commissions and boards tend to be positions reserved for members of the community holding “respected” positions, access to capital through fundraising or connections, and the ability to influence public opinion. While many of these boards are diverse in gender and race, they often still fail across the class spectrum.
And who are the artists? Are we giving women and people of color the creative and financial opportunity to create their representation of a person, event, or abstract concept? By my rough count, women make up less than 20 percent of the artists listed on Philart.net, poet Christopher William Purdom’s index of the city’s public art. It’s safe to say that the number of artists of color similarly falls short of reflecting Philadelphia’s population.
What voices should be heard?
This is a great time to step aside and see what others have to say. I’d love to hear who my longtime black neighbors view as local heroes, the events that defined their generation, and the chain of events that brought Philadelphia to this particular crossroads as a majority-minority city, the poorest of all big U.S. cities, and undoubtedly the most historic.
We need monuments that reflect the diverse backgrounds of our citizens, such as our growing Middle Eastern population, our large Jewish communities, our West African and West Indian communities here in West Philadelphia, and our Hispanic communities. Let’s explore their histories within the context of Philadelphia and celebrate those stories. Who are the de facto leaders in these communities, and how can we collect and share their stories with the rest of Philadelphia?
As a city that tries to serve as a refuge from nativism, we should ask immigrants like Javier Flores Garcia: What would a monument to sanctuary look like? As a minority-majority city struggling with structural inequity and systemic racism, we should ask activists like the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative: What would a monument to the struggle for racial equality look like?”
How should we ask the people?
How can we co-opt the Mural Arts model of placemaking, expression, and public contribution for our city’s enduring monuments?
Digital tools are great, but they can’t be the only method of data collection. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts, both Philadelphians making less than $30,000 per year and residents over the age of 65 are less likely to have internet access than the rest of the population. Additionally, only 16 percent of city residents get their local news from the internet, while almost 40 percent get it from TV.
So, how should we reach out? Not everyone is going to read PlanPhilly, or follow Monument Lab, or pass by workshops in Rittenhouse. There are gathering places around the city can be utilized to reach people: churches, rec centers, schools — even the local watering hole. It will take time to reach out in an one-on-one manner but the due diligence will pay off, and the citizens will appreciate the effort.
What could a monument be?
Philadelphia is so historic that it’s easy to overlook the history. I rarely stop to reflect upon the statues all over City Center, and I’ll give the 2,500 blue and gold historical markers a cursory glance. So, my final questions is: What could a monument be? As benchmarks, the historical markers cost about $1,400 each, while newly-built monument to Octavius Catto at City Hall cost $2,000,000 . With that range in mind, let’s reimagine what a monument could be:
What if the monument could travel so that all sections of the city could experience it, host it, make it their own?
What if the monument was participatory?
What if the monument was sensory?
What if the monument was a trust to fund a scholarship or job creation program?
What if the monument was digital?
What if the pedestals of all existing monuments to men who owned slaves were converted to a supporting foundation created by sculptures of the all the black men, women, and children they enslaved?
What if the monument used all the discarded tires in Philadelphia? What if the monument pushed us to consider the people and resources used to get us here?
I don’t know what the next monument should be, but I know it should celebrate people we don’t want to see forgotten and a collective history we don’t want to see erased. What stories are hiding in plain sight, and what advice do they hold for future generations of Philadelphians? If we want to move forward as a city, and to develop equitably and sustainably, our monuments must guide us toward those progressive goals.