Who hasn’t been at the table?

New Monuments Taskforce, led by women of color, re-evaluates 83 city monuments and the racist history they symbolize in The Relic Report

BEFORE: In 2019, the statue of Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower was vandalized in red paint to symbolize spilt blood and then restored at the price of $70,000, only to be removed by the San Francisco Art Commission on June 18, 2020. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
AFTER: The images show the view of the tower before and after the statue’s removal. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Prior to last summer’s social justice reckoning, the historical context behind Bay Area monuments were largely unrecognized. The national shift in consciousness regarding racial injustice in the United States sparked a wave of public conversation about the truths of these monuments. 

The Relic Report, a record evaluating the city’s monuments and their racially motivated and colonial values, was given a formal presentation Oct. 20. The event was hosted by Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival, at the California Historical Society. It was co-presented by the New Monuments Taskforce (NMT) and Goethe-Institut SF and was led by the NMT’s Artistic Director Cheyenne Concepcion and Development Director Anna Lisa Escobedo. 

The NMT is a newly established group of artists and cultural workers who have taken on the responsibility of designing and developing new monuments in the Bay Area. However, before these new developments can occur, the NMT must evaluate the outcomes of The Relic Report and surveys with SF residents. The taskforce’s first initiative, as stated in the NMT report, was to “broaden understanding of our inherited monuments and memorials…and create space for critical conversations.” 

Concepcion, a multidisciplinary artist, SF activist, and author of The Relic Report, said that her joint interest in art and cities led her to the idea of monument examination. “What really got me interested in them was growing up in San Diego, and being right at the border because the most interesting thing about San Diego is that it’s half the city and half Tijuana,” said Concepcion. She explained that living in San Diego caused her to develop an interest in border urbanism. 

The border wall was the main influence in her love of monuments. “The thing that brought me to monuments is the wall, because I feel like the wall is such a monument. Things pass it every day: it’s completely arbitrary and yet it’s a symbol,” Concepcion said. 

The NMT categorized the monuments they evaluated into different categories. The first was called “The Boys Club”: a collection consisting of 53 memorialized men and three women. The NMT stated that many of the monuments are for “SF government bureaucrats and national heroes.” Of the 56 statues, only one memorialized a Black man (Mayor Willie Brown) and three memorialized women, revealing an imbalance in representation.  

The next category titled “The OGs” or “The Original Gentrifiers” consists of 15 monuments of notorious male figures in the colonialism and settlement of the United States. The collection begins with figures from the early Spanish expeditions in 1770, the Pioneers 150 years after, and American-Dreamers: wealthy, white landowners who possessed power in SF. “A former mayor, James D. Phelan, is responsible for quite a few of the monuments in the civic collection today,” the NMT stated in the report. They went on to describe how Phelan had run for Senate on the campaign, “Keep California White.” Toler Hall on USF’s main campus was previously named after Phelan, but the building was renamed after Burl Toler, the co-captain of USF’s famous 1951 football team and the first African American official in a major American professional sports league, in the wake of student action in 2017. “[Phelan’s] visions for San Francisco were grand… and they built monuments only for wealthy, white people,” the NMT concluded.

The report included more categories of monuments throughout its account, all of which were rooted in misogyny, racism, exclusivity, and ultimately, white supremacy. As part of their initiative, Concepcion and the NMT surveyed Bay Area residents and collected their responses regarding the monumental relic collection. One resident stated that “the monuments only honor achievements of white males and reflect a certain hierarchy of who and what deserves to be honored by the collective.” Another stated, “My relationship to monuments is one of fear and or disgust. I want monuments who wouldn’t spit on me as I pass them.”

Many of the responses the NMT received were veracious critiques of the monuments, with some even calling for the termination of the representations of white supremacist figures such as Christopher Columbus or King Carlos III, two colonizers who directly instituted and engaged in the genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas. On June 18, 2020, SF residents’ disapproval and vandalization of colonial monuments led to the removal of a statue of Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower that had been installed in 1957.

Towards the end of the event, Concepcion reflected on her time as a leader of the NMT and The Relic Report, and the role her identity played in its conception. “In almost every other avenue of life it’s been a hindrance to be a woman of color, or at least you feel the weight of that,” Concepcion said. She continued to emphasize how her identity as a woman of color became a strength while conducting The Relic Report. “The fact that I’m telling you how I see the world, and other people resonate with it, it’s like this is really what our monuments are saying to us.” 

Concepcion said she realized that although it’s difficult to feel seen and represented, experiences can never be “wrong,” and are valid despite any lack of external validation. “You can own a hundred percent of that and fight on it,” said Concepcion. “That is a strength that women of color have and I’ve learned to live in.”

Concepcion mentioned that this lesson was new to her and connected it to her work with monuments.  “What I experienced from 2020 is that now is the time to take up space and be unapologetic and live in your experience because no one can ever take that away from you. I always come from a very personal place when it comes to monuments because I think that I’m entitled to that and I’m gonna fight for that opinion to be heard too.”

For more insight and a deeper look into The Relic Report, visit the website at newmonumentstaskforce.org and IG @newmonumentstaskforce.

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