In New Orleans, when I ride the St. Charles streetcar home to the French Quarter from Tulane, I always pause and look up as we clang around the vacant tall plinth in the center of what used to be known as Tivoli Circle and later Lee Circle.
Growing up here, I did not focus much on the monument there. Indeed, a few years ago, when Wynton Marsalis asked if I would support his effort to take down Robert E. Lee, I was initially taken aback. “I’ve driven around Lee Circle thousands of times,” I told him, “and I never thought all that much about who was atop that column.” He paused for a moment and replied, “I did.” His answer made me see the issue from a different vantage.
Now that the statue is gone, I look up and pause for a while as I reflect on the blankness, the void, on top of the pedestal. I’ve also seen it recently at eye level from the roof of the new Culinary and Hospitality Institute on Howard Avenue.
I used to muse about what should replace the statue of Lee. One of Oretha Castle Haley? Louis Armstrong? Drew Brees? Or a fountain? A piece of art? A crawfish?
But with each viewing from each new vantage, I am struck by how evocative and moving and memory-provoking the current poignant void has turned out to be. It has become a piece of public art, a piece of found art. It memorializes a moment when we as a city had a long and difficult discussion, then lived to remember the tale.
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The vacant monument captures that moment and more. Whatever side of the debate you were on, each new viewing evokes not only the thoughts you had at the time but also your evolving feelings as time passes. You might even second-guess some thoughts you had at the time (what if we hadn’t taken it down when we did?), or perhaps not. How powerful is that?
Either way, it makes the current non-monument into a living and breathing memorial and unintended artistic statement.
After Hurricane Katrina, there was a red FEMA cross painted on the front of our family home on Napoleon Avenue noting which National Guard unit got there first (California’s 5th) and how many dead were found inside (zero). When my brother renovated, I asked him to leave the FEMA cross untouched for a while. For a few years he did, and it became a memorial to the storm and our survival.
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So I would like to propose that we do the same for the vacant pedestal in the Circle. Let’s leave it as is for a few years. It’s an evolving work of art and a serendipitous memorial. Then, maybe five or 10 years from now, we can replace it with a fountain or a statue or — in the spirit of the original Tivoli Circle — a carousel featuring flying horses and dancing crawfish and maybe some historic characters. In the meantime, let’s just pause and reflect on a historic moment we lived through. We have a good monument to help us do that.
Walter Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane and the author of biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin.