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Statues are facing a massive rethink across the nation, and last Friday the city of Chula Vista banished its Columbus statue to storage for fear it would be vandalized or torn down. But the real scandal is less about who’s depicted in our most lasting memorials and more about who isn’t.
There are at least 60 statues of men at parks, universities and other public spaces in San Diego County, and about two dozen of them represent real people – saints, businessmen, athletes and more. We’ll soon add yet another to this long list of stony gents: a statue in Little Italy of the late crooner and Point Loma resident Frankie Laine.
What’s missing? More than half of us. By my count, we’re home to just three statues of women who actually existed: Kate “Mother of Balboa Park” Sessions, abolitionist Sojourner Truth and, um, the woman who got kissed by a soldier in Times Square on V-J Day. I did the math: We have more statues of baseball star Tony Gwynn on public land (two) than of actual women who ever lived here (one). Go figure.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the nation is arguing over the fate of statues that honor men who represent the brutality of our past. We haven’t been immune to this trend: In recent years, vandals struck the Columbus statue in Chula Vista and the Confederate memorial that bizarrely sits under an American flag at the San Diego’s city-owned Mt. Hope Cemetery. In 2017, officials removed a Jefferson Davis plaque at Horton Plaza, seven-plus decades after another outcry. And 2016, educators renamed a San Diego elementary school that somehow got away with being named after Robert E. Lee for almost 60 years.
We continue, however, to memorialize famous men who’ve lost their luster.
A statue of Nazi fellow traveler Charles Lindbergh greets travelers at San Diego International Airport, which used to be named after him. There’s a statue of Father Junipero Serra at Old Town’s Presidio Park, honoring the pioneering 18th century missionary who – depending on your point of view – protected Native Americans or brutalized them. And, in the singular case of a local statue honoring a non-athlete who’s still alive, there’s a statue of Pete Wilson, the mayor-turned-senator-turned-governor, near Horton Plaza. While Wilson revitalized downtown, he also championed California’s anti-immigrant Prop. 187 in 1994, which spurred racism and helped transform the state into a Democratic stronghold.
The list goes on, including the eyesore by the seashore, the waterfront’s gigantic “Unconditional Surrender” sculpture, based on the famous Times Square photo of a sailor kissing a nurse at the end of World War II. Critics say it depicts a sexual assault, and last year a vandal painted “#MeToo” in red on another version of statue in Sarasota, Fla.
Not every male statue is controversial. No one’s complained about those depicting downtown businessman Alonzo Horton, sports writer/former football stadium namesake Jack Murphy and a young surfer in Encinitas. OK, never mind, strike that last one. The Cardiff Kook is a hot mess.
Here’s the thing: Guys dominate everything. Even animals depicted in local statues are male, from the soaring lion named Rex at the San Diego Zoo entrance and the Cat in the Hat next to Dr. Seuss at UC San Diego to Bum, the 19th-century downtown mascot pooch. By all accounts, Bum was a very good boy. The behatted and bipedal feline, not so much. But still: More of the same.
Where are the women? Memorialized without names, mostly. (See: The water gatherer at the waterfront side of the County Administration Building). Or raising eyebrows at the graveyard. At Mt. Hope Cemetery, a statue known as “Our Lady of Shoes” presides over the unmarked graves of immigrants. A gift from Mexico’s footwear capital, she sits atop a pile of boots and has a sneaker tread in her hair. It doesn’t make sense to me either.
As for other people of color, statues mostly fail to depict local people of color from our history, such as downtown’s Chinese-American pioneers, the black citizens who struggled for a voice and the American Indians who did (and do) more than toil nobly. Our statues do honor several men of Latino heritage, but they’re all from distant history, like explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and Mexican president Benito Juárez.
Statues matter because they reveal who’s worth remembering – and who isn’t – and they tend to stick around forever. We all deserve to be able to look up at a public park, see a statue of someone like ourselves and know that we belong here.
The most urgent need is for women to be represented, real ones with names and histories and impact. Woman sculptors are key to making this happen. After all, they sculpted two of the three local statues of real women: Sojourner Truth at UCSD (sculpted by Manuelita Brown) and Kate Sessions at Balboa Park (sculpted by the hilarious Ruth Hayward).
So where do we start? With the astronaut and scientist Sally Ride. She’s the first American woman in space, an LGBT icon and a longtime San Diegan. She was also quietly but firmly fierce.
Ride, who died in 2012, came close to being honored five years ago. That’s when state legislators tried to replace the statue of the soon-to-be-saintly Father Serra at the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall with one of Ride. But the effort failed — disappointing the Pope is hard — and that was the end of that.
We’re a city that’s long defined itself by its pioneers. First came the men and women who put this dusty, lawless Wild West town on the road to becoming the nation’s eighth-largest city. Then our modern era’s masters of science, medicine and technology. But we’ve never had a more inspirational pioneer than Sally Ride.
Let’s set Sally Ride’s legacy in stone, and let’s do it by next May, the 70th anniversary of her birth. Honor her with a statue at UCSD, where she worked, or at Balboa Park’s Fleet Space Center or Air & Space Museum. It’s the right thing to do, the best thing to do and there’s no better time to start acting like America’s Finest City than the present.