Politics & Policy

In New Orleans, Political Fashion (and Ambition) Clashes with Historic Preservation

Louisiana, peerless among its Southern neighbors in its heterogeneous heritage, has for four centuries been the home to one of the most diverse American populations. Here, the descendants of French, Cajun, African, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Vietnamese, American Indian, Haitian, Croatian, and Irish settlers live side by side in its swamps and its cities.

While historically more tolerant than other parts of the country, Louisiana did play a very real role in two regrettable periods of American history: slavery and segregation. Although both were inexcusable, reprehensible parts of the state’s past, the people of New Orleans have worked tirelessly to unify their community, despite the worst natural disaster in American history, widespread poverty, and rampant criminality.

Unfortunately, residents can find little hope in their elected officials. Thanks to its traditionally inept leadership, New Orleans faces persistent budget crises that leave residents concerned about the paychecks of first responders; currently, the city owes more than $150 million in back pay and raises to firefighters, and the city government is refusing to pay. Meanwhile, the streets of the Big Easy are in utter shambles, threatening home values and undermining economic development. Residents are growing alarmed by the frequency of the city’s orders to “boil water” because it is unsafe to drink.

And, as the Times-Picayune reports, the murder rate in the Crescent City remains among the highest in the U.S. and three times the average for comparably sized U.S. cities. In January 2015, New Orleans celebrated that only 150 people were slain during the previous calendar year. (Non-fatal shootings rose by 24 percent.)

With so many problems facing one of America’s most beloved cities, one wouldn’t expect Mayor Mitch Landrieu to have to create one of his own. But he has.

RELATED: Let’s Not Fight the Civil War Again

After the tragic, racially motivated assassinations of nine churchgoers in South Carolina on the night of June 17, 2015, lawmakers across the country are rethinking the methods by which they remember the Confederacy and those who fought for it. Led by Republican governor Nikki Haley, the conservative legislature of South Carolina voted nearly unanimously to remove the flag from government grounds, and several states seem poised to follow suit.

Louisiana does not cling as tightly to the Confederate flag as other Southern states do. While some might own the rebel flag at home, here it is not the ubiquitous cultural symbol that it is, for example, in Mississippi or Georgia.

RELATED: ’Disappearing’ the Confederacy

Throughout the Pelican State, however, are monuments erected in honor of and streets named for famous Confederate figures, especially those hailing from Louisiana. Unlike its Southern siblings, Louisiana began this process not in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but immediately following the Civil War.

In 1870, donors commissioned a statue in honor of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. For its location, they chose Tivoli Circle, now known as Lee Circle, which was privately owned. Today it is one of the most famous landmarks in the city where Mardi Gras parades pass and eager parade-goers from all walks of life marvel at the carnival, not the Lee’s legacy. The statue, along with the more than 300 other historic places in the city, is maintained by volunteers and private donations through the Monumental Task Commission.

Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Circle, New Orleans (Wikimedia)

Now, all monuments and streets memorializing General Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard (who, like many Louisianans, was of multiracial ancestry), and Jefferson Davis are the target of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s political aim. Apparently discontented by his constituents’ indifference, the mayor has announced that he wants to invoke a 1993 “nuisance ordinance,” which, he believes, gives city council the authority to remove or relocate these memorials. In a patently political move, he is also demanding that these landmarks be replaced by symbols of black leaders — some still living — from New Orleans. Never mind, of course, that they’d likely prefer their own separate monuments and not simply to serve as Mayor Landrieu’s convenient afterthought.

Unsurprisingly, Mayor Landrieu has declared that public discussion of such a monumental redesign of the city’s physical and cultural landscape will only last 60 days. Until last night, all of the city government’s meetings dedicated exclusively to these proposed changes were closed to the public and the press. They were invitation-only gatherings of Landrieu’s closest political allies and those friendly to his cause.

RELATED: The Confederate Flag and the Story of Our Past: A Final Reflection

On Thursday, two government committees hosted the first public hearings on Landrieu’s plans. The meetings spanned several hours, with opponents of the statues’ removal outnumbering the plan’s supporters “four or five to one,” according to a resident who testified. One New Orleanian said he spoke with a contractor who said that the cost to remove just the statue — without its foundation — and store it for a single month would top $1 million. This could instead be used to pay for the salaries for 228 new police officers during that same period.

All monuments and streets memorializing General Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis are the target of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s political aim.

With Landrieu’s self-determined September 8 deadline looming, opponents have less than a month to stop him from erasing the city’s complicated history. He would do so in direct contradiction to the will of the people. In June 2015, Triumph Campaigns conducted a statewide poll in which opponents of the plan to remove the Lee statue outnumbered supporters 68 to 19 percent. Even African American and progressive historians in the Crescent City believe that while there should be a new interpretation of these historic symbols, they should not be removed from the city’s landscape.

According to the Times-Picayune, Landrieu has “made it clear that he wants Lee’s name and Lee’s image gone by 2018 when New Orleans celebrates 300 years as a city.” Indeed, it has become increasingly apparent that Landrieu is motivated not by serving a city that needs cops, firefighters, navigable roads, and clean drinking water but by the dream of creating a liberal legacy fit for his last name.

I have long been vocal about my distaste for the Confederate flag on government property. By its sheer presence on official grounds, it wrongly demands a reverence unfitting for an entity that aimed to secede from the U.S. And for many people, it is a constant reminder of a painful chapter of our vibrant history. But Landrieu’s vanity project would have us pretend that the chapter never happened.

#related#When I was a little girl, my parents took me to Civil War battle sites and historic monuments around my home state. They taught me about the richness of our culture, the tenacity of our people, and the complexities of our story. They also taught me right from wrong, that slavery and segregation were evil, and that I had an obligation to learn about the history of my state and my country.

If Mitch Landrieu succeeds, he will deprive parents like mine of opportunities to have those conversations with their own kids. He will cast guilt and blame on a society so desperate for unity, which he has failed to foster as mayor. He will neglect the hard work of volunteers, donors, and preservationists to keep the city’s unique heritage alive. And he will ignore his duties as mayor while one of the world’s great cities falls apart.

All the while, the people of New Orleans will continue to cry out for leadership as its sons and daughters are murdered in the streets. I doubt their families will find consolation in the rubble of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

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