One of the more depressing things about living in LA - as compared to say Paris - is the lack of statues in the streetlife. In my experience, most french cities – saved those bombed into shit and rebuilt after WWII – are filled with statues and images, gargoyles and fountains. But American cities and suburbs, with some exceptions, do not give you a lot of statue encounters.
In the argument about taking down the Confederate statues, there is an understandable theme that this is a matter of mere symbolism, the kind of thing that a white college student can participate in an pat himself on the back – and who doesn’t begrudge that figure his satisfactions? Yet I think the statue-viewer situation is made much too one dimensional in this view of things.
There are two dimensions that are left out here. One is the dimension of the symbol and the real in the cityscape, the park, the campus. The other dimension is the material one of who, in the average day, really encounters these statues.
My contention is that the lack of statues in the American space has to do partly with the idea that symbols aren’t real. We will spend on the real. Here’s a real building – say, the Pet store next to our apartment on 9th and Wilshire. And here’s a symbol, say, the statue of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, in Palisades Park at the very end of Wilshire.
Now the funny thing here is that the real, in this story, being the functional, can easily be substituted. The pet store on Wilshire, for instance, went broke or moved. The building was revamped, and it is now a Charles Schwab building. The effect on the users of the Pet store might still be lodged in the memory, but my bet is that nobody really notices any more. Whereas if we took the statue of Augustine’s mother down, and substituted Madelyn Murry O’hare, people would notice very much. That is because the symbol is not functional in the same way – it is read differently in the landscape. Another way of saying this is that the symbol has power.
To understand this power, one must shift levels to a materialist reading of the urban scape: who exactly sees what.
In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the United for a Fair Economy organizaiton commissioned a study of carlessness in eleven major urban areas. And guess what? Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to be carless.
This is simply another element in the economic apartheid that prevails in the U.S. But it has effects. One of the effects is that getting around the city, if you don’t have a car, requires an elevated amount of walking. Even if you are walking to and from the bus stop, there is more walking involved in your urban life.
One of the reasons that there is a lack of statuary in cities in France that were rebuilt after the war is that these cities were rebuilt with the automobile in mind. A predominance of statues implies a congregation of walkers. Car drivers might mark certain statues in a city – but mainly they don’t know them. They don’t read them.
One of the reasons that the statue issue is hot on campuses is that this is one of those spaces where white people are actually walking. Walking not as a sport, but as a functional activity that gets them to where they are supposed to be. This directly affects the statue viewing experience. It makes it degrees more intimate.
When the Confederate statues were erected in the South, from 1910 to 1960 for the most part, there was a great deal of carlessness among both whites and blacks. This meant that the statue experience was on a level of intimacy that was meant to send a clear message to African Americans. The message was: this is not your space. This is not your home.
The level of car ownership rose considerable for whites and blacks during this period – but much more for whites than blacks. In fact, as the phrase “driving while black” implies, and as we know from every video of police – African American encounters, the white uneasiness about blacks having access to automobiles has never gone down.
What this means is that those statues loom much more into the intimate experience of African-American everyday life than they do in White American life. But when the statues are threatened, white Americans – certain ones, Nazis, Trump, that ilk – show that they can still read them very well.
In this way, symbols can grab hold of life. Taking down the statues will not collapse the structure of economic apartheid. It will lessen the stress of the African American everyday experience.
Take the statues down!