When Monuments Go Bad

June 7, 2021 Ι Bloomberg CityLab

The stately eagle atop the 50-foot-tall fluted column of the Illinois Centennial Monument can be seen from blocks away. Located in the gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, the memorial was designed by Henry Bacon and Evelyn Beatrice Longman and built in 1918 as an allegorical representation of the history of Illinois. Representational friezes line the column’s circular podium: On one side, the monument’s base offers abstract personifications of Chicago arts, agriculture and industry; the other side depicts an early contact between Indigenous people and Europeans. A Native American man wearing a feathered war bonnet stands while a woman looks back at a robed missionary clutching a cross. The look in her eyes is somewhere between a wary gaze and a confrontational glower.

It’s a vision of colonization that might be more nuanced than those you’ll find in many of the city’s monuments, but it’s still a source of controversy locally. For one, the Indigenous man pictured is “wearing the wrong headdress,” says Santiago X, an Indigenous artist and architect based in Chicago. (The strikethrough in his name is intentional.) “They’re wearing the wrong clothes.”

Andrew Schneider, president of local preservation group Logan Square Preservation, defends the monument as a beloved local landmark. “It’s an iconic image of Logan Square,” he says. “The people that live here have a real attachment to it, and that cuts across all racial and socio-economic classes.”

The centennial monument and 40 others are now under the equally critical gaze of the Chicago Monuments Project, an advisory committee of civic leaders, artists, designers, academics, and culture workers (including X) tasked with re-evaluating how the city handles its stock of monuments (which Schneider says he supports). The city formed the committee in the wake of the uprisings against racist police violence in July 2020. During a demonstration at Grant Park against a monument to Christopher Columbus, police assaulted journalists and activists; within days, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had statues of Columbus in Grant Park and Little Italy removed “temporarily.” To come up with long-term policies for monumentalization, the advisory committee began meeting in September and tentatively hope to release a set of recommendations by late June.

The official charge of the project is to “[call] out the hard truths of our history — especially as they relate to racism and oppression,” because “telling a true and inclusive history is important, as is addressing who gets to tell those stories in public space. Our priority is to address ignored, forgotten and distorted histories.”

No other American city has opened up this sort of wide-ranging dialogue about how cities make monuments. Swept up in this inquiry are five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as monuments to George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Italian Fascist Italo Balbo. The 41 items under discussionare just a small percentage of the hundreds of monuments in the city, but committee co-chair Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, says the work of the committee is just a start. She’s asking for public participation on how current memorials should be handled, as well an in the commissioning of new monuments.

“It’s an exploration, not a condemnation, because it needs to be a public conversation,” she says.

The committee is looking at six criteria, though individual monuments aren’t connected to specific factors.

  • Promoting narratives of white supremacy
  • Presenting inaccurate and/or demeaning characterizations of American Indians
  • Memorializing individuals with connections to racist acts, slavery and genocide
  • Presenting selective, oversimplified, one-sided views of history
  • Not sufficiently including other stories, in particular those of women, people of color, and themes of labor, migration and community building
  • Creating tension between people who see value in these artworks and those who do not.

Many monuments in this group were created from 1893 to 1930, around the era of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was meant to secure Chicago’s place at the table of great Western metropolises. Funded by wealthy and powerful white people, many of these monuments represent (assumed) clear historical protagonists on pedestal or horseback. Their literal, representational focus leaves aside the points of view of those outside a “mainstream” that’s defined by power and colonial violence.

“The limits of our historical imagination always want to pin the change on a charismatic, heroic individual, which is very much an imperialistic, patriarchal version of how history works,” says committee member Lisa Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum.

To wit: There are a slew of Lincolns — sitting down with a book on his lap, standing up clutching an axe, and gripping his lapel with a world-weary sense of resolve in his eyes — and enough generals on horseback for a victory day parade. Friezes posit white figures in colonial landscapes as stoic exemplars of civilization in a maelstrom of danger and uncertainty, if not outright violence.

The complicated records of foundational figures of American history (Lincoln is instrumental to Native American displacement, just as he is to the end of slavery) heralds a fissure in American ideals and monuments’ ability to embody them. In the wake of a generational critique of how power and race are intertwined in deeply undemocratic ways, power is shifting, and some monuments are coming down. Suddenly, says McDonald, there’s room to ask, “Who has the right to decide?”

Says Lee: “The monuments debate has everything to do with who has a right to the city, the right to claim public space, and the right to demand historical accountability.”

That accountability is central to Lee’s work in the grassroots effort to establish a new Chicago memorial — this one marking the victims of police torture in the city. But the gap between rhetoric, intention and execution for the project has meant long delays that underscore the resistance to accepting new narratives about monuments and culture.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Chicago Police Commander John Burge and his infamous “Midnight Crew” tortured at least 100 Black men into false confessions. In 2015, the city agreed to pursue a package of reforms, pay $5.5 million in reparations, establish a Chicago Public Schools curriculumabout the torture, and issue a formal apology, becoming the first municipality in the nation to endorse reparations for racist police violence. As part of that resolution, the city also promised to fund a permanent memorial to the victims of police torture.

The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) Project arranged several exhibitions calling for public input, uniting survivors, activists and South Side residents through a radically democratic process. “That process of stepping back and inviting everyone to contribute their creativity, their imagination, the desire to work for justice really opened up a process,” says Joey Mogul, CTJM co-founder. “It invited different members of the public beyond lawyers, legal workers and organizers.” The task for CTJM is to communicate “the horror and the pain and the generational trauma that occurred, while also [making] sure we acknowledge people’s agency and resistance,” says Mogul.

It’s a multi-layered brief that requires the ambiguity of abstraction to represent. The final design, selected by a jury of torture survivors, artists, activists, cultural workers, architects, educators and philanthropists, is by Chicago artist Patricia Nguyen and architectural designer John Lee. Called “Breath, Form, and Freedom,” it’s a concrete, circular pavilion bisected by a wall with an open courtyard at its center.

In process and form, it’s a radical change from historical monuments. The space is envisioned as offering up a public forum for cook-outs, teach-ins and exhibitions — ongoing conversations and programming that demonstrate that this history is not settled. It invites visitors to take a position in the space literally, and ideologically. The cyclical act of breathing, reflected in the circular shape of the memorial, works at the formal level and as an element of historical recognition. (Suffocation was a torture technique Burge and others used, and police continue to use, as the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner illustrate.)

Nguyen thinks of the memorial as a “place where [survivors] could heal, come together, and just reflect on what happened,” she says. “I see CTJM as the model in Chicago of what it means to actually be survivor-led and be community-based.”

One of those survivors is Mark Clements: At age 16, police tortured and sexually assaulted him in 1981, forcing him to admit to four murders that put him in jail for 28 years. As a CTJM advocate, he says the memorial will be “a perfect way to bring some form of healing to the men and women that were affected. We would like to have people in the community attend this memorial and to participate in the events. I think it would be a shining face on the South Side of Chicago.”

The memorial is estimated to cost $2 million, an amount Clements calls “crumbs” compared to the trauma and economic disruption caused by torture, coerced confessions and false imprisonment. (It’s also crumbs compared to how much Chicago taxpayers pay out in compensation for police misconduct: more than a half billion dollars over the last 10 years.) But six years after the agreement, the memorial is still waiting for funding and a site. And Clements has little confidence that Mayor Lightfoot, who came to office from the review board that investigates police misconduct, considers the project a priority. (The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about plans to fund the memorial.) Lightfoot has acknowledged the torture publicly, but her administration’s Law Department, as recently as May 2021, has refused to admit in court that this systematic abuse took place.

“Lori Lightfoot has always been a person that has protected the interests of law enforcement over the interests of common people, poor people out of Black and brown communities,” he says.