Until earlier that year, the two grassy squares had been known as Lee and Jackson Parks, respectively. But, in February of 2017, the City Council voted to remove the statues of their eponymous Confederate generals. The parks’ names were changed in June.
Then came the tiki-torches, the marchers in polo-shirts, the chanting. Then Heather Heyer was murdered. The city rescinded their request for proposals. No statue removal for now. No park design project.
Unite the Right was, in part, a response to the work that my team was planning to do for the city. We were going to redesign the parks with a post-Confederate identity.
One year later, I wonder what might have been if we (or another team) had gotten the chance to redesign the parks. In their original request for design proposals, the city made a clever decision: they wrapped the removal of the statues within a larger project of urban-design and civic engagement. By focusing on the creation of something new and useful, the Charlottesville parks project was an opportunity to heal and move forward as a community.
Unfortunately, the environment necessary for that process to take place didn’t exist in Charlottesville at the time. By voting to rename the parks “Emancipation and Justice” earlier that year, the city issued a direct rebuke to the Confederacy and it's twenty-first century sympathizers. Rebel-shaming is not a good foundation for a community-based design process in central Virginia.
In August, 2015, I wrote an entry in this blog advocating for the preservation of Confederate memorials. At the time, I supposed that the destruction of those monuments was provocative and might lead to something terrible. The birther, Donald Trump, had announced his presidential candidacy two months earlier and it seemed like a bad time to fan the flames of white paranoia. I was wrong, and I was right.
I fear that I was right about the potential of memorial destruction to spark chaos. Group-vandalism events like those that destroy Confederate statues and douse them with red paint are counterproductive. They embolden the wildest racists, provide fodder for paranoid news hosts, and stoke the fears of white southern voters.
I was wrong to advocate for the preservation of Confederate memorials in public places. I didn’t appreciate the degree to which black Americans are terrorized by their governments’ display of those symbols. I also hadn’t considered that the removal of Confederate memorials, through a democratic process, could be a powerful affirmation of democracy itself. Memphis taught me that.
In 2017, I was thrilled by the maneuvering of the Memphis City Council in it’s removal of the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park. It was an inspired bit of governing. They found a loophole in the state law protecting the general's memorial and exploited it. In so doing, they delivered what their constituents wanted and peacefully reshaped their city.
Still, I think that an even better model for the removal of these symbols can be built: one that is more focused on the future and more positive for the communities surrounding the statues.
In Charlottesville, my team was preparing to build that model: a process of community engagement to redesign its public space. Our team was diverse and, in many ways, resembled the community that would use the parks. We planned to meet with citizens and to interview them. Then we planned to build places that served their daily needs, based on their feedback. I regret that we didn’t have that chance.
Fortunately, Charlottesville will take another shot at this process. A call for design proposals went out earlier this year. The design team has probably been selected. When the they begin their work, I hope that they take the time to document their approach. I hope that their process prioritizes honesty about the past and consensus-building around the community’s needs for the future. If they succeed, they may create a powerful new tool for deescalating the monument debate.