After 133 years of standing tall over the New Orleans skyline, Robert E. Lee has been toppled. The last removal of Confederate statuary has unceremoniously been effected.
For Mayor Landrieu, this has been marked with a great deal of self-congratulation. In a speech delivered to a select elite at Gallier Hall, he vigorously defended his removal scheme. Pundits have spoken openly about how removals may enhance Landrieu’s political capital. The New York Times even cited him as a possible presidential nominee.
If I were Landrieu, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Once those kudos from certain political quarters subside, Landrieu can expect to continue receiving the usual criticism for his wrongheaded policies as crime increases and the local economy worsens.
The question now becomes what to do with the monument sites, particularly Lee Circle. On this score, Landrieu has pretermitted any debate. In a press release put out by the administration on Thursday, the city announced that the column would remain, and that the city would “be undertaking public infrastructure improvements to include a water feature at the circle.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Landrieu is leaving the majority of the Lee monument in place wants to add some kind of fountain, presumably in time for next year’s Tricentennial Celebration. And I assume Mayor Landrieu will give another flowery speech at the dedication.
The Monumental Task Committee (MTC), the non-profit which maintains New Orleans’ historic monuments, quickly criticized Mayor Landrieu’s plans in a press release.
“The City has several fountain monuments that are in dilapidated condition,” the press release explained. “The Simon Bolivar, Loewenberg, and West End fountains are eye sores that no longer even function. Refurbishing any of these deplorable, city-owned sites to become Tricentennial Fountain is a much more cost effective and practical idea.”
The city already hosts three fountains that are don’t work and are literally falling apart. But repairing an existing fountain wouldn’t serve Mayor Landrieu’s legendary ego, so he’s planning on building another at taxpayer expense.
This is par for the course for Landrieu, who has previously mocked citizens who would rather the city focus on repairing our streets than building garish fountains in the CBD.
The mayor usually gets his way in these matters, but there’s still some room for public comment. Local blogger Jeff Bostick, who supported Lee’s toppling, wrote briefly last Friday describing Landrieu’s plan as “goofy” and indicative his plans to “turn the Tricentennial into his own personal graduation from office celebration.”
“But he’s not turning 300, the whole city is,” Bostick continued. “And these public spaces belong to all of us. So maybe we should broaden the discussion about what to do with them. If that takes us longer than the end of Mitch’s term to figure out, then so be it.”
Many people have offered their own suggestions for Lee Circle, usually proposing generic Katrina memorials or monuments to various New Orleans entertainers. Since I’m not particularly enthusiastic about anything I’ve heard so far, I’ll bite and throw in my two cents.
To wit, if the Lee statue isn’t coming back (and that ship has unfortunately sailed) think that it should be replaced with one of Assistant Police Superintendent Louis Sirgo, who was murdered in 1973 during the notorious Mark Essex spree killings.
I wrote a column about Sirgo three years ago providing the basic story of his background. To recap, Sirgo was a WWII veteran who joined the NOPD in 1946. After becoming a detective, Sirgo enjoyed short-lived TV fame when co-starred in a Dragnet spinoff, N.O.P.D., which ran for two seasons in 1956-57 and also yielded two B movies. It was the first major TV series filmed on location in New Orleans.
Sirgo left the department in 1964 and became a clerk in traffic court. However, in 1970, during the first term of Landrieu’s father, Sirgo was asked to return to the force by then Chief Clarence Giarrusso who was seeking to improve the image of the department.
When Sirgo returned to the NOPD, the department was mired in conflict with the Black Panthers. In October of 1970, there was even a shootout between Panthers and the NOPD in front of a police district house.
On November 19, 1970, the NOPD went to the Desire Street projects to oust the Panthers. A violent confrontation was avoided, largely due to Louis Sirgo’s efforts. In the wake of the confrontation, Sirgo delivered a noteworthy speech to a Golden Key Honor Society gathering, in which he decried entrenched poverty and mistreatment of racial minorities.
“[I]f there were no ‘Desires,’ there would be no Panthers,” Sirgo explained. “We must face up to our responsibility, and in facing up to this responsibility, we must also be prepared to deal with the greatest sin of American society, and that is the status of the American Negro.”
Sadly, Sirgo was killed during Essex’s murder spree three years later at the Howard Johnson’s on Loyola Avenue (today a Holiday Inn). Sirgo was shot in the back in a stairwell as he attempted to rescue trapped officers. The plaza in front of police headquarters was dedicated in his memory.
Today, the NOPD and the public at large can certainly benefit from Sirgo’s example. If private funds could be raised to commission a statue of Sirgo, I know I would certainly feel comfortable with him taking Lee’s place and looking over the city.
At the very least, I think that a monument to Sirgo would be more appropriate than a self-congratulatory “water feature” to commemorate Mayor Landrieu’s departure from office. Surely we can plan something better than that.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.