In 1964 there was a huge debate in City Hall. New Orleans Public Service, the company that operated public transit, wanted to discontinue the Canal Street trolley line and replace the streetcars with busses. Proponents of the change said that this would carry the city into the future, making it a modern town and not one laced with old fashion streetcar lines. There was loud counter-debate about the importance of preservation, but those arguments were seen as being backwards. When the council voted the forces of modernity won out and the abolition of the Canal Street line was approved. The vote was 6-1.
Councilman Joe DiRosa, the lone dissenting vote was applauded by many citizens who felt powerless in influencing the outcome. Not wanting there to be any nostalgia, Public Service moved quickly to destroy some of the streetcars and equipment as well as photographs and documents. (We would learn later that the automotive industry was lobbying nationwide to replace rail system with busses.)
I am not at all trying to equate streetcars with Civil War monuments, the issues are totally different, but what is common is that the future’s perception of issues is often hard to predict. By the 1990s urban rail systems had become modern again. They were seen as being more fuel-efficient than busses. They also did not clog the streets as did busses and they were an appealing part of the street environment. In 2004, after years of street work and millions of federal dollars a new streetcar line was opened where the old one once rumbled. Those with a memory would recall that Joe DiRosa was right; the other six council members and the mayor, Victor Schiro, misread the future.
I trust the future will provide a more enlightened evaluation of the monuments controversy. (Here too the vote to remove was 6-1, this time with Stacy Head in the minority.) Maybe one day we can better understand complex issues from complex times without the same old racial rhetoric. (General Beauregard, for one, deserves a fairer trial: After the war he headed an effort known as the “unification movement” in which a coalition of black and white business leaders pushed for integrated schools, transportation and public places. He was chosen to head the state’s new lottery because of his trustworthiness. He also helped establish a railroad, thereby investing in the future as the age of the steamboat faded. Beauregard was so respected that his handsome statue at City Park was funded by a community drive and created by nationally respected sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who admired the general. Nor was Beauregard’s vision of the confederacy all stars and bars. He and confederate President Jefferson Davis had contempt for each other. Davis happened to die in New Orleans. Beauregard as senior military person in the city had the right to lead the funeral profession but he refused saying that because of his dislike for Davis to do so would be hypocritical.)
Maybe one day we can realize that historic figures who lived at times when slavery already existed need to be judged on a wider scale. Some, such as Robert E. Lee, opposed slavery. He is best remembered as a skilled general and as a postwar peacemaker. People should most fairly be evaluated by how they responded to the situations that they could control.
Maybe one day we can at least empathize with the native middle class such as those who gathered at Liberty Place. Established locals are most resistant to changes for they are the ones who feel most threatened by a loss of power within their community.
In the American Civil war brothers fought against brothers, but at least the cause was just and necessary. In the monuments debate, citizens screamed at citizens for a cause that had seldom been voiced and for which there had been little previous concern. This was a battle that did not need to happen. In the process some good people, who care very much for the city, will be hurt, at least emotionally.
One of the great weekends in New Orleans history was that of Feb. 6-7, 2010. On that Saturday, Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor by a landslide carrying both the black and white vote. Landrieu, at the time the Lieutenant Governor, was a talented public servant from a respected political family. His election united the city. Then the next day, that magic Sunday, the Saints won the Superbowl. With Carnival parade season starting the following week, never before was the city locked in such a communal hug.
Through the years this town has been more united than it gets credit for, or that those who exploit race would want to concede. We have never, in modern times, had major riots; we dance together on the fields of the Jazz Fest. Yes, there are problems as in many cities but we have done better than most.
Considering what New Orleans has been though it has a right to feel good about itself. I was hoping that this the year leading into the city’s tricentennial would be a time for rejoicing at our survival. There should be a joyous buildup to the year, but that’s not the way it is happening. There may be tense days ahead.
Fortunately forces even greater than City Hall govern the human spirit. May we all in our own way, especially in this season, find peace and understanding. No one that I know of opposes building more monuments to other people whose lives were part of the city’s sage. This of course includes diversity not only by race but career. Lets not forget those who sometimes had to stand alone. Maybe there can even be a tribute to Joe Di Rosa.
This article was adapted and substantially modified from a blog that first appeared when the monuments removal controversy was voted on.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.