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San Luis Obispo officials say no to public monuments of people

Courtesy of Paula Zima
A planned statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt launched a conversation about monuments in San Luis Obispo.

Should San Luis Obispo have a formal policy regarding monuments? That was the discussion among city officials this week after a group proposed placing a statue of a former U.S. president in a city park. The mayor and some in the community disagreed with the idea. San Luis Obispo officials ultimately decided the city’s policy is not to allow any monuments to living or dead individuals to be erected.

By definition, monuments are sculptures or structures erected to notable people or events. On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo city council heard the results of a 5-month study of cities with monuments policies, which included San Jose, Auburn (CA) and Washington D.C. Each city takes a different approach to placing monuments in public places.

Mayor Heidi Harmon steered the council discussion. She opposed a plan this year of putting a privately-funded statue of President Theodore Roosevelt in Mitchell Park. Others questioned erecting a statue of Roosevelt, in favor of a person more closely associated with the city.

“Anyone worthy of a monument would not want one,” Harmon said.

The conversation comes as cities across the country have been forced to defend or remove monuments—frequently of white men from history, and often called out as problematic—over the past several years.

“Why would we step into lifting up individual people who are—undoubtedly, as we all are—complex, flawed, [who] have moments of genius and brilliance, but also moments where we make incredibly bad decisions?” Harmon asked

San Luis Obispo has a public art policy, which hasn’t been updated since 2015. The city council directed staff to update the policy to say: no monuments to people. But statues of concepts are acceptable.

“Let’s look at the Statue of Liberty,” Harmon told KCBX News after Tuesday's council meeting. “It’s a human form, but I don’t know who that woman is. It’s celebrating the values that we have in this country, and even at times that can be controversial, but at least we are talking about ideas and not about individuals.”

James Papp, chair of the San Luis Obispo Cultural Heritage Committee, disagreed with the decision to ban monuments of people. 

“It is the worst thing they could have come up with,” Papp said. “It says there are no people, only ideas are important and all of their wonderful and terrible flaws are not."

Papp told KCBX News that creating such a decree is a slippery slope.

“Because the next thing is we can’t put up plaques to anyone, or we won’t have an event [dedicated] to any individual,” Papp said.

Papp said he was concerned the city won’t be able to honor any people or person with a monument moving forward. Papp cited cities like New Orleans that have statues of jazz musicians, which he said are exciting to tourists. New Orleans has also removed public monuments, like a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and a statue of President Andrew Jackson still remains controversial in that community.

Harmon said she invites people to submit public art designs that celebrate San Luis Obispo ideas and ideals. But several council members also said they had concerns about erecting statues in general, because while they are often privately funded, the city is tasked with maintenance costs. Councilmembers also questioned that cost if they might have to remove them down the line. Council members added that residents were welcome to place monuments on their own private property.

Mayor Harmon also asked staff to include diversity and inclusion language when updating the public art policy, which will return to council at a later date.

San Luis Obispo has a number of public art sculptures throughout the city, including the statue "Tequski Wa Suwa (Child & Bear)," a Chumash depiction in Mission Plaza by artist Paula Zima. Zima was commissioned by ARTS Obispo to create the Roosevelt monument planned for Mitchell Park, and $50,000 was raised for the projecct in 2017. ARTS Obispo couldn't be reached for comment on plans for the Roosevelt statue project in time for publication. 

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