Arthur Ashe Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

Photo: Dhanya Rajagopal

The role of historic statuary in public spaces have occupied a position of critical debate among the general public, civil rights activists, artists, politicians, preservationists and historians alike. Ever since the Charlottesville attack, cities such as Baltimore, New Orleans and New York City have removed Confederate statues.

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, which was a former capital of the Confederacy, has been at the forefront of this debate recently. The design competition, entitled Monument Avenue, General Devotion/General Demotion, initiated by the Storefront for Community Design and mObstudiO at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, hopes to offer a nuanced perspective for Monument Avenue, keeping in mind the ongoing discussions around monuments and their symbolism in public spaces. This was only an ideas competition to spark conversation. The deadline to enter has passed but an exhibition of the winning concepts will open on February 14, 2019, in Richmond. More information here.

The competition brief urges participants to reimagine a “hybrid representation” of the 5.4 mile historic boulevard, its viability as an interurban connector, and its significance in the history of the United States. The first mile and half of the avenue is dotted with statues of former confederate leaders Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fontaine Maury, built between 1890 and 1929. Connected through a central lawn, the avenue boasts rows of ornate houses and religious buildings. 

In 1996, amidst protests by some residents, the city of Richmond unveiled a statue of African American Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and a champion of human rights, on Monument Avenue. The statue, facing away from the previous confederate statues in line, points towards a progressive future.

Barbee Matthew writes in Race and Masculinity in Southern Memory about the notion of community belonging and the evolution of public memory expressed as a product of the legacies of the past but that they can change with shifting cultural and political ideals. Statuaries can evoke a sense of power, pride, fear or exclusion along those changing paradigms over time. Past Design Trust Fellow Sam Holleran’s recent blogpost about his visit to Kiev and Kharkiv, Tracing Urkrain’s Past and Present in Public Spaces, documents the transition as Ukrainian cities grapple with the historic Soviet era symbolism left behind in most of their public spaces and infrastructure. This ongoing “decommunization” process includes legislation that prescribe the removal of monuments, statues and street names that bear any reminiscence of the Soviet era without much public debate. Mr. Holleran writes, “Controversies over memorialization and statuary in the built environment must be addressed with a focus on inclusivity and historical interpretation.” 

Richmond’s Monument Avenue is another example showing that the nature of uses and users of public space can be greatly altered over time. Richmond’s efforts to rebrand itself as a progressive, creative city is evident in its ongoing urban planning efforts. The city has seen many urban revival projects that have integrated traces of its history into the changing landscape. The newly introduced Pulse bus rapid transit system pays homage to the street cars that once ran in the middle of the roads. The city decided to reveal and memorialize the street car tracks, instead of paving over them. 

This might be a great oportunity for the city of Richmond to improve public spaces, revitalize the commerical corridor, create a robust local economy and adaptive reuse of vacant and abandoned properties along Monument Avenue. The competition brief proclaims, “Good design has the power to offer nuanced, multi-layered and hybridized representation of the built environment in places where conventional discussion has failed.” There is much hope that this will be reflected in the future vision of Monument Avenue and could potentially be a model for the future of reinterpretation of public symbolism, reviving main streets and historic districts.

Memory is personal and powerful in bridging or breaking gaps in communities. This makes it challenging as an outsider to interpret the emotion that different groups attach to these monuments — but as a planner and placemaker I can say that the 5.4 mile avenue holds monumental possibilities for people to shape their own narratives of memory, identity and belonging, in a way that reflects their cities’ past, present and future.