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The Future of Giants Past

Paul Druecke has used snapshot photos, refrigerator facades, red carpet, public ceremonies, and now landmarks to explore what he's called, “the makeshift boundaries between self and world.”

Wisconsin State Historical marker #412 stands inauspiciously outside of Marquette University’s Law School in the city of Milwaukee. Number 412 has a physical presence as unassuming as its subject matter, Mabel Wanda Raimey, is heroic. Who? Even as a native Wisconsinite, and Milwaukeean for that matter, I've never heard the name. I immediately like its lyric quality—the way that Wanda, sandwiched between Mabel and Raimey, changes everything for the better, at least sonically. But who is or was Wanda Raimey? The cast aluminum sign—painted brown to look natural, woodsy, like something with roots—tells us that Mabel Wanda Raimey was the first African-American woman attorney in Wisconsin. Mabel was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar in 1927 and the marker that commemorates her achievements was erected in 1999. It stands two feet from a well-trafficked sidewalk. I read about Mabel's progressive accomplishments. People shuffle by me.

I am reminded of when I first stumbled upon the prehistoric burial mound—and it's marker—in Lake Park, also in Milwaukee. The burial mound is a small bump of earth, a “landmark” in the truest sense of the word. It also sits just off a well-traveled sidewalk and is so much in plain view that it disappears, voila, into its surrounding. In 1913 the Milwaukee Historical Society added the memorial plaque smack on top of the mound, fashioning it to look like a headstone with, I'm sure, the best of intentions. I excitedly shared the discovery of this unhidden treasure, blurting the new-found trivia into conversations apropos of nothing. But no one else, at least from my circles, had noticed it either. Landmarks are, it's fair to say, yesterday's news—invisible simply because they're always there, ever unchanging.

Milwaukee Burial Mound Landmark
Photo by Paul Druecke

Memorials are, as a friend pointed out to me, vacuum-sealed time capsules around which the rest of the world changes. They're an opportunity to step out of the twitter-paced flux so essential to living and breathing. I have a soft spot for the landmark's aura, the sleepy nostalgia that they exude but also the terrain they map—literal and symbolic, physical and psycho-social. If we look past the patina and genteel stories we see that these markers are part of a vigorous, ongoing cultural competition for public visibility and social acceptance. They tap into a timeless sense of decorum (what could be more earnest than text wrought in durable bronze?) to which humans still, remarkably, ascribe value. Their breadth, by which I mean the variety of who and what we see honored in our communal spaces, is a gauge for democracy’s continuing struggle for equal opportunity and for truly public places. It took seventy-two years before the barriers that Mabel broke could cross another threshold into public commemoration.

I should clarify here that I use the term “landmark” in a broad sense, to refer to assorted forms of publicly honoring someone or something: memorial statues, historical plaques, and both informal and official markers. Whether considered in this broad or in a more orthodox sense, the politics of landmarks seem straightforward when compared with their psychology. Landmarks represent a sublime societal resistance to loss and absence, more potent than even cemeteries. Let's step back, for a moment, to the beginning.

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Milwaukee has, dating from the time when the last glacier retreated, been home to untold numbers of people. Part of the allure of old photographs—like the ones that depict a family of merchants or group of kids standing on a dusty street circa 1869—is that they give us a manageable point of reference for so many lives past. Humans crave this sense of lineage; I make a game of imagining how many people have lived in the century-old house where I now reside. How many dinners have been consumed? How much enthusiasm, now sorely lacking, for domestic routine? When I found a cache of butchered pig bones half-buried in a dank, unused corner of the basement, I tried to imagine, (after freaking out and bringing them to a local authority to confirm their porcine nature), I tried to visualize without much luck, the who, when, and why that led to the bones coming to rest there. Such details would make a great landmark, but landmarks seldom deliver such intimate banality. They do, like an old black and white photo, attest to a thread of continuous human habitation. They represent a need to remind ourselves that such a thread exists.

There is an educational component to landmarks and perhaps a little entertainment as well. Urban centers, even in an adolescent-aged country like the United States, have diverse and storied histories. It's not necessarily surprising that Golda Meir, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, spent her formative years in Milwaukee on her way to becoming the Prime Minister of Israel. It was a landmark, rather than high school (I wasn't a particularly motivated student, by way of full disclosure) that taught me Golda Meir's connection to my birthplace. I also learned from a landmark that the “first practical typewriter” was invented in Milwaukee. And I wondered for a long time why there was a larger-than-life, terracotta-hued statue of Leif Ericson, overlooking Lake Michigan. Why Leif? Why here? (It is an interesting tale of well-heeled patronage, and for a concise, enjoyable account complete with Norwegian pride and a virtuoso violinist, I direct you to the book, Outdoor Public Sculpture in Milwaukee by Diane Buck and Virginia Palmer.)

My interest in landmarks coincides with an obsession for lists, which started me shuffling the names of landmarks into different groupings while trying to make sense of the constituencies. The landmarks that dot our cities form a web of interconnected stories. They are a localized system for understanding what human society has been, what it has accomplished, and what it has endured. Simply by their presence, they attest to sustained human settlement  —which is interesting because every frontier trading-post did not flourish, nor did every “gathering place at the waters”
1 grow into a city.

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A list of Milwaukee landmarks includes the following:

National Soldiers Home Golda Meir Sinking of the Lady Elgin
Birth of Pizza in Milwaukee     Old Sauk Trail Stephen J. Bollingen
Convent Hill Carl Sandburg Hall     Valiant Immigrant Mothers
Ron Mann Butterfly Garden Pompeii Square Stone from Tepeyac Hill

A personal favorite is the Birth of Pizza in Milwaukee; an official-looking plaque (they do always look official) just off of Catalano Square says the momentous occasion occurred at the Caradaro Club in 1945. I think it's fair to say that everyone owes a moment of thanks to the introduction of pizza wherever they call home. The Birth of Pizza in Milwaukee plaque was placed in 2000, presumably with private funds. It doesn't show up on state, county, or city rosters, which highlights the difficulty of culling a complete list of landmarks. But even if such a comprehensive list did exist, it only begs the question of what and who has been overlooked? That's because lists expose their own limits—that is their nature, and also the reason for my interest in them. The mathematician Kurt Gödel formalized the intrigue of such longing with his Theorem of Incompleteness. I am not aware of any memorial to Kurt Gödel, certainly not in Milwaukee. He has not crossed into popular culture
in the same way as his friend Albert Einstein. There is a touching quote attributed to Einstein who said on the occasion of his appointment to Princeton, that his own work no longer meant much to him and that he came to Princeton “just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt.”2 Two immigrant geniuses walking home as the sun sets along with a bit of august humility—both scenario and sentiment are commemorative worthy.

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So who is chosen? What event is worthy of posterity? And why? The debate over erecting a bronze statue of Arthur Fonzerelli—The Bronze Fonze—in Milwaukee created two camps. YES and NO. The yes camp prevailed, but the polarization missed all debate about erecting a well-conceived memorial and so Milwaukee's nod to the Fonz looks like a stiff, diminutive Halloween-costume of 1970's cool. Maybe that's appropriate though I doubt intentional.

A monument, like a history book, tells us as much about the paradigms in place when created—political world-views, aesthetics, power structures, etc.—as it tells about the subject matter. By-gone history and contemporary society collapse into one another; the distinction between cause (historical significance) and effect (elevation to historical significance) is blurred. On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, I was somewhat surprised to find that the landmark plaques throughout the historic, i.e. tourist district, were all erected in the 1950's; it struck me as, well … a little disingenuous to not address the glorious mansions and plantation lifestyle they allude to from a post 1960's sensibility. The omission speaks volumes.

As does the simple presence of a landmark. Every marker is evidence of the persistent, if fickle drive that humans have to memorialize. This tendency is connected to the psyche at a primal depth, earth mounds being just one of many examples. The contemporary plaque and the effigy mound share a common concern. At the heart is an existential awareness that tips, as often as not, to discomfort. We know we're going to die, we can accept, plan, or attempt to forget, but it's a simple fact that intrudes upon life. One that we confront with lasting memorials. The Caradaro Club's 1945 moment stands frozen, cast in durable material so as to continue to be present, like The Sinking of the Lady Elgin, the Old Sauk Trail, or Martin Luther King Jr. whose name and image are stamped on public space in every urban center in this country in an attempt at keeping the dream alive. The list goes on and on.

Bay View’s Rolling Mill landmark
Photo by Paul Druecke

Or maybe the landmark is not so dramatic, not evidence of existential crisis at all. Landmarks could simply be a response to the one-way flow of time. We're always moving forward, ever anticipating (driver’s license, job, sexual experience, love, maturity, responsibility—not necessarily in that order). Biologically and psychologically it seems that evolution favors the forward tilting. Landmarks carry forward the ancient desire to embody the hard-to-pin-down notion of memory. The goal is catharsis, with its delicate process of deflected confrontation and release. We argue about the relevance of a public Fonzie; the substance of our passion is something much less wieldy.  The landmark, like language itself, is an attempt to short-circuit or circumscribe the temporal nature of life.

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Can our landmarks tell us anything about the future? The monument to Mahatma Gandhi, on the western edge of MacArthur Square just east of Milwaukee's courthouse, is a beacon of things to come. I don’t refer to Gandhi’s genius for effective non-violence, though we certainly hope that his sanity can, one day, prevail. Rather, I refer to the surreal juxtaposition of Mahatma Gandhi, the embodiment of non-violent resistance, striding alongside the courtyard named for General Douglas MacArthur, the can-do man for “might makes right.”  Both individuals are represented by “realistic” bronze statues. MacArthur rises 15’ high, rigidly towering over the expansive courtyard named for him. Gandhi, less imposing, is in full motion—the sculptor conveying a sense of a mission not completed. Here we have opposing world-views, rendered in bronze, coexisting at an arms-length from one another. The odd-couple pairing bodes something of the future as our cities and urban centers become denser and denser and democracy demands that increasingly divergent ideas coexist in an ever more populated space of public iconography. A short walk from Douglas and Mahatma, Mabel's biographical snippet reminds us that it isn’t, and shouldn’t, be just a man’s world. Two minutes in the other direction, we're standing where “C. Latham Sholes perfected the first practical typewriter,” Walk east from there to find the Rescue of Joshua Glover and Wisconsin's right-minded response to the horror of American slavery as well as the valor of immigrant mothers remembered in Cathedral Square. Each and every marker adds to the idiosyncratic texture of Milwaukee. Each one, in its unassuming way, commands a place in our social psyche. As a group, landmarks map this psyche and trace its path over time.

1. “Gathering Place by the Waters” and the “Good Land” are the two most common definitions for the Native American “Millioke.” The Making of Milwaukee, John Gurda, and www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milwaukee_Wisconsin

2. The World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein, Palle Yourgrau

List of (linked) Landmarks:

Rescue of Joshua Glover – Cathedral Square

St. Mary's School of Nursing – 2300 N Lake Drive

National Soldier's Home – 50th and National Ave (approx)

Mabel Wanda Raimey – 1100 W Wisconsin Ave

Dr. Martin Luther King – 1700 N MLK Drive

The Old Sauk Trail – Hubbard Park

Captain Frederick Pabst – 2000 W Wiscsonsin Ave

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