This opinion article originally appeared in The Richmond Times Dispatch.
What will Monument Avenue look like in the years and decades ahead? And what will replace the Confederate statues and pedestals along Monument Avenue?
When I reflect on these questions, one particular quote surfaces for me again and again. While unveiling the once controversial but now iconic Picasso statue in Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza in 1967, Mayor Daley said, “We dedicate this celebrated work … with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”
In 2013, when my wife, Lulu, and I bought a house in The Fan, we immediately noticed the historic plaque to the right of our front door, documenting the year it was built. The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, on Monument Avenue, appeared at the center of the metal plaque, around which reads, “The Fan Area Historic District / National Register of Historic Places / Contributing Structure Erected in 1905 / Richmond, Virginia.” See the center photo below, probably one of the very last to be produced (in 2020) before the new plaques appeared.
We were newly married and moved to Richmond for Lulu’s job at Sabra Dipping Company. She is originally from Mexico City while I’m from Milwaukee and have more recently lived in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and New York City. As newcomers to Richmond, the Confederate generals dominating all of the real estate along Monument Avenue seemed odd. I wondered to myself, “Didn’t the Confederacy, um, lose?”
Removing the Historic Marker from Our House
During 2020’s George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter protests, we decided to take our plaque down around the same time Mayor Stoney ordered the removal of the Confederate statues. We realized, if we want peace on the inside of our house, why hang a symbol of war and racism on the outside? See a photo at left above of our daughter, Dani, holding the plaque just after removing it. (Dani and I even appeared on the local NBC affiliate, talking about the “Push to change historic markers with Confederate image on Fan District homes.”)
In late 2020, Governor Northam dedicated nearly $11 million dollars for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to hire staff and launch a community-driven effort to redesign Monument Avenue with the hopes of selecting new art or images to beautify the boulevard. And on September 8, the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue was removed from its pedestal.
Meanwhile, ideas for new neighborhood imagery have been percolating up from within our community. Some residents have painted over their plaques with people or images that inspire them while others have taped over the Robert E. Lee statue, simply stating that the statue no longer belongs. See three examples that I photographed over the past year above.
The Fan Women’s Club, which produces the plaques, has subsequently replaced Lee’s image on all newly issued plaques with a stylized fan at the center around which reads identical text as before. See an example of one at right above.
So, how will we create a “new” Monument Avenue?
Whenever I hear adults talk about the Confederate statues, whether pro or con, and how to reinvent Monument Avenue, it is almost always highly opinionated with very little curiosity or creativity. I sincerely hope that the grown-ups can avoid strangling each other while discussing solutions to this reinvention. Which leads me to ask, how do our young people see our city and its central boulevard? They will be the ones to inherit it.
Picasso himself said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” On another occasion he said, “The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.” It takes a long time to become young.”
The Confederate statues and pedestals have occupied Monument Avenue for so long that it seems strange to finally have a blank slate on which to create something “new.” Then who better to ask than today’s students for whom life is but one massive blank canvas. The creative process is inherently familiar to them.
As a board member of Richmond Young Writers, our organization works to facilitate and promote the emergence of youth voices through creative writing and journalism. We would welcome a place at the table with Richmond’s other youth arts organizations to facilitate the reinvention process.