Meeting Minutes – August 19, 2021

City of Syracuse Heritage Park Advisory Commission

 Meeting Minutes

August 19, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom and included members of the Italian-American Task Force

Introduction. A Heritage Park Commission member (CM) began the meeting at 10:02 am by acknowledging the unceded Onondaga land Syracuse currently resides on.  Introductions were made to allow members of the Italian-American Task Force to become acquainted with members of this Commission.  For a review of CM introductions, see minutes from the April 12, 2021 meeting.

Presentation. Ms. Anna Tiburzi was introduced before presenting “Monuments and the Politics of Memory”.  She began by explaining how every landscape has a story, and physical monuments embody the perspective and values of the people in that area.  Monuments recently, but not for the first time, have become a focus of protest because of their symbolism and representation of histories of subjugation and violence.  This is as much an issue of spatial justice and equity as it is an issue of social and political equality, and monuments can be vehicles of change and discourse, allowing a community to reflect, critique, evaluate, and understand their landscapes.  It is often presumed that a monument’s symbolism speaks for everyone, when in reality they often represent a select few.  Ms. Tiburzi then explained that her handbook is broken down into five major sections: 1) The Rise and Fall of Monuments, 2) The Role of Monuments, 3) The Monument Debate, 4) Building a Visual Vocabulary, and 5) Starting a Discussion.  These minutes will provide a brief overview, as you have been given access to the full handbook.

The Rise and Fall of Monuments. In the US, there has been a commemorative influence on monuments.  The first commemorative monuments came in the late 1700’s, with a surge in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s (during the Jim Crow Era), and this is when most of our most recognizable monuments were built.  Many monuments made during this time were not just commemorative; they also reasserted values of white supremacy while creating a mythology around certain historical events. The Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution are responsible for creating thousands of monuments, many commemorating Confederate generals, which perpetuate the false history that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights, rather than slavery.  Contemporary commemoration also aligns with periods of social change, as seen in the surge of monuments from 1980-present.  This period begins with Maya Lin’s construction of the Vietnam Memorial, and has its roots in the public art industry.  There has been a movement towards more abstract, large scale monuments. 

Today, we are seeing movements against these monuments that are symbols of power and, in some cases, misrepresentations of history.  This form of protest (taking down monuments) has national and international historic precedence; New Yorkers brought down a statue of King George III after hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence by George Washington.  This act is called fallism, which is the democratic practice of monument removal, destruction, or contestation as a means of political and/or social struggle and protest by marginalized or vulnerable civic groups within society, reacting against social and political symbols that reinforce systems of oppression.  This form of protest is a call to move away from existing forms of power and to challenge current social structures and authorities.  

The Role of Monuments. Monuments are a human attempt to remember and define history, and to offer narratives and highlight predominant social, political, and cultural values.  It must be understood that memory and history are not the same.  History is the study of past events and is made up of multiple narratives that all must be understood if the true history of something is to be known.  Memory is subjective, and collective memory is a shared reading and understanding of the past, often legitimized by officials or the predominant culture.  History is defined by its plurality of narratives, yet many monumental landscapes are dominated by singular representation that have historically denied minority groups their own representation while holding up the ideals of white superiority.  

Public space always has been, and will continue to be political. Monuments in these public spaces make history and memories tangible and fill space with symbolism.  Many are built in spaces of political and 

civic power, which lends authority and credibility to the monument’s narrative.  While memory is limited and does not last forever, monuments offer interpretation of events for as long as the monument itself lasts.

The Monument Debate.  Historically, there have multiple strategies of monument removal: destruction (formally by municipalities or informally by protestors), reinterpretation and recontextualization (counter monuments, added signage, unsanctioned alterations, occupation of the space), removal, replacement, and preservation (off site or protected).  The statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia serves as a good example of monument that has been altered by citizens, recontextualizing it and changing the meaning and symbolism of the monument.

Monument defenders argue that removing monuments equates to erasure of history and destruction of public art.  They also think the moments are key to education, and that they cultural value because of the heritage they celebrate.  Many are also concerned with the slippery slope argument, and wonder where people will stop once one monument is removed.  On the other hand, the monuments can be seen as reminders of oppression and inequality.  Perhaps removal can allow for more inclusivity in public spaces.  It is beneficial to ask which parts of history should be celebrated, rather than thinking of it is history erasure.  Unfortunately, some monuments lack context and contain harmful symbolism.  While some monuments offer educational opportunities, they are always supplemental and not necessary to understanding what they represent.  The pain and hurt caused by some monuments outweigh their benefit for academic curiosity.  Many monuments are less about cultural heritage, and more about reasserting power during periods of social unrest and racial mobility.  In this way, monuments can minimize the pain of oppressed groups, while also not adequately and appropriately serving and celebrating the people and heritage they claim to support.  Finally, monuments do not exist on a continuum; what is decided for one monument does not necessarily hold true for another monument.  These decisions should be made on a case by case basis. 

A Visual Vocabulary.  A monument is a form of memorial, which is a physical element meant to perpetuate the memory of individuals or events.  Monuments include statues, markers, museums, and art installations.  Commemorations are acts of remembering through physical structures or through acts or participatory events.  A counter-monument challenges the forms, symbolism, and reasons behind traditional public monuments and memorials.  A sculpture is a two- or three-dimensional representation of a form shaped by carving or casting.  The pedestal is the base or support that a statue, obelisk, or other element is mounted on.  The plinth is a stone slab, usually rectangular, that supports a pedestal, column, or statue.  Examples of monumental architecture include: columns, markers, obelisks, pyramids, reliefs, and arches.  

An interesting aspect of a monument is the landscape itself, which can greatly affect the way a monument is viewed.  Form is the physical shape, size, and appearance (or aesthetic) of an element or work and its composition.  Space is a defined area or location. It can be open or closed, and contains mass, or the physical arrangement of elements, and void, the absence of mass.  Taken together, these elements comprise the landscape’s composition, or organization of elements into a whole.

The location of a monument matters, as it imbues meaning.  A monument in a civic space might project power and authority, while one in a cemetery might offer a message of grief and loss.  How a monument is approached and viewed is also important.  The Lincoln Memorial is an example of a focal-axial approach, where the viewer enters straight on and the landscape is oriented in a way that focuses attention and highlights the scope of the monument.  Lee Circle in New Orleans is an example of a monument within a traffic circle, which gives the monument high amounts of visibility, but a smaller amount of actual interaction.

It is important to consider how open to interpretation the landscape is.  A representational site will include recognizable, real-world elements (Korean War Veteran Memorial).  They often create a singular narrative as their messages are straightforward, leaving out parts of history in order to highlight specific realities.  This limits our ability to think critically about the space as it forces us to consider what is given directly to us.  Non-representational or abstract sites are not based on real-world imagery, and can exaggerate or distort concepts or imagery (National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL).  Ambiguity comes from the simplification or distortion of form, allowing for interpretation and multiple narratives to exist.  

Scale refers to the relationship between the size and proportions of a structure or landscape and a human observer.  The actual size of the monument, or pieces of the monument, affects how it is experienced.  The verticality of a monument serves to place the subject above the viewer, creating a sense of reverence and importance, or even disconnection (Air Force Memorial in Arlington, VA, or the Statue of Liberty).

Temporality is also important.  Temporary and spontaneous memorials are relatively new in Western culture, but offer unique opportunities to express grief.  These memorials are often unsanctioned and are ephemeral; begging the question of whether memorials and monuments need to be permanent.  What material the monument uses offers meaning, as well.  Water is a versatile element, and the way it looks and sounds can be changed.  See the Civil Rights Memorial Fountain in Montgomery, AL, made by Maya Lin, for an example of how water can be used. Vegetation can be used to symbolize growth and rebirth.  Light and projection can used for renarrating existing monuments, as was done with the Lee Monument in Richmond, VA. 

Most monuments in America are “closed” memorials; they contain a specific message about a past event.  These are opposed to “open” memorials, which encourage participation, are dynamic, and often highlight ongoing trauma.  See the Gun Violence Memorial project in Washington, DC, or the AIDS Memorial Quilt.  Symbolism as it pertains to the overall narrative must be considered; style and archetypes influence how a monument is interpreted and the message it sends.  

Case Studies.  Many confederate statues have been funded by United Daughters of the Confederacy, and were constructed decades after the end of the Civil War.  These monuments were erected to solidify their message of white supremacy over black Americans.  Richmond’s Monument Avenue was created as a neighborhood meant to keep out black Americans, alienating them with monuments dedicated to Confederate Generals, upholding white supremacist values.  The Stonewall Jackson monument in Charlottesville, VA required the destruction of African American homes.  

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial marks a turn in monument style in America due to its abstract design and war commemoration.  Maya Lin’s design focuses on grief and mourning rather than a political statement towards war in general.  Its abstract form made it controversial at its inception (as did her gender and nationality).  Some saw it as a “black gash of shame”, while others appreciated its interactivity, openness to interpretation, and how it allowed for a great deal of introspection by the viewer.  The final design included the representational element of “Three Soldiers” as well, as a compromise.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a great example of grassroots memorialization.  The choice of material is striking, as quilting is a marginalized art with strong ties to American culture.  Quilts allowed everyone the chance to participate without discrimination or the need to actually visit a specific location.  Quilts are not seen as high art, and are very accessible, bringing a humanness to this memorial.

George Floyd Square is a unique and recent example of a spontaneous memorial.  The focal point is a large metal fist, while the names of other minorities killed by police are included around the center.  The landscape is dominated by impermanent materials provided by the community: paint, chalk, paper, cardboard, flowers are used.  An abandoned gas station across the street is used to hold vigils and serve meals, while a nearby bookstore is used as a donation spot.  This sacred place of grieving and protest will be officially memorialized by the municipality, showing how a community can claim their own space as a place of remembrance and protest for ongoing issues.

Starting a Discussion. To start a discussion within your community you can use the first four sections of this handbook.  It is important to challenge assumptions of existing monuments and the landscapes they inhabit.  Ms. Tiburzi suggests the following additional resources: The Chicago Monuments Project, Monument Lab, Troubling Memorials: Disgraced Monuments in America, The Trees, and Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

Open Discussion. A CM opened the discussion asking if the new monument should have a singular narrative or if it should be open to interpretation.  This is one of the main questions this Commission needs to consider.  Syracuse has the opportunity to offer a message of diversity, reflecting the history and makeup of the City.  Another CM asked about other communities’ experiences with Columbus statues that have been replaced with interaction and participation, and others that have been reinterpreted with a connection to the Doctrine of Discovery.  Ms. Tiburzi is not familiar with any specific instances, mentioning that many are coming down without a plan to replace or renarrate them.  The same CM brought up Syracuse’s unique opportunity to highlight this area as the birthplace of democracy, situated on land in the center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is arguably the longest lasting democracy in the world.

A CM was concerned with the protection of monuments in regards to vandalism and fallism.  Syracuse is seen as moving towards a solution regarding Columbus Circle, which should deter potential vandalism.  Sometimes protecting a statue with a fence, box, or increased police presence invites vandalism, as it reinforces the negative message associated with the monument and shows concerned parties that the municipality cares more about the protection of the monument than the will and feelings of the marginalized people.  A CM responded by voicing her frustration with the continued discourse on the current monument, stating that it has been decided that it will be relocated (pending a court decision).  The CM stated the Commission should focus on what will replace the monument and the overall narrative of Heritage Park, mentioning a glass globe involving flags representing all the people who come into this area.  The CM was reminded that the Italian-American Task Force is already focusing on what might replace the existing statue.

A CM asked about other sites creating an active, healing space.  The CM mentioned the Arts and Crafts Festival that utilizes the area, as well as the Festival of Nations.  The International African American Museum in Charleston, SC utilizes its landscape in a way that reflects its sobering message, while allowing some space to be used in a more open, interactive way.  Perhaps the Columbus Circle site and the adjoining Powelson Site could be used in tandem this way.  Another CM mentioned that the site should be planned for mixed use, but respect must be paid to what the park is honoring.

A CM reminded the Commission that we are still searching for an appropriate home for the Columbus statue, and that there is no Italian Heritage center in Syracuse.  It was also mentioned that parameters for a Request for Proposal are being developed, but community input is needed.  

A CM urged all Commission members to visit the Skä·noñh – Great Law of Peace Center and learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, the beginnings of democracy, as well as the concept of the “Good Mind” and how the Haudenosaunee are approaching this issue (and countless other social justice issues) with a Good Mind.  A CM stated that the continuation of democracy could also be highlighted, mentioning social justice movements, women’s rights, and the Jerry Rescue.  A walking tour could also be included.

A CM reminded the Commission that the Italian-American Task Force is responsible for what replaces The Columbus Statue to represent the heritage of Italian-Americans.  Another CM hopes to create a yearly event held at Heritage Park that would highlight the diversity of our community.

The meeting concluded with a CM reminding the Commission that community input is needed.  A City of Syracuse representative thanked the Commission

The meeting was called to a close at 11:53 am.

These minutes respectfully submitted to the Heritage Park Advisory Commission

Chris Melfi

Support Services Administrator-Onondaga Historical Association