Archive for August, 2005

What does time tell

August 30, 2005

Time tells. That also means time counts. It means you should preserve your history and when I say it I mean the messy history of what happened not the neat history of whatever today’s ideologues need or “heritage” which is a shorthand for freebased history, an identity narcotic extracted crushed refined and distilled from real history. Real history is what happens in time and over time and that never works for systems like ideology or politics because systems are static and history is dynamic.

My job is historic preservation, which is trying to save old buildings, sites, structures and landscapes because they are living history. But how they are interpreted is another matter. We preserve landmarks because they mark our land; they are part of our collective identity. When Chicago demolished the garage of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre it was trying to purify not only its memory but also its identity. We didn’t want that worldwide rat-a-tat-tat image and gangster identity. On the south side, over 4,000 Confederate prisoners of war are buried in Oak Woods Cemetery but the city under Harold Washington balked at landmarking the site because it was felt that somehow that honored slavery.

They could not commemorate the site of the Haymarket Tragedy for over a century because the two sides – workers and police – had different interpretations of the event. Striking anarchist workers had a meeting broken up by police, a bomb was thrown, killing a policeman and several more on both sides died in the ensuing melee. Four activists were hung and three others later pardoned by Governor Altgeld, destroying his political career. A police statue stood there in the late 19th century but was destroyed in the 1920s and destroyed twice more in the 1960s. When it became a landmark in the 1990s, the city put a plaque in the sidewalk secretly – not telling either the police historians or the labor historians. Finally, quite recently, a monument was put there because… time told. The police and workers had been washed together by the waves of time and the old static ideological divisions were no more…

what does time tell you?

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