Last week I was in Manchester, U.K., for an international conference of street papers. Fifty-four papers from 28 countries gathered to consider questions ranging from vendor recruitment strategies to the growing train wreck of global inequality.
When I returned to Seattle, I found that time had not stood still in my absence. Fremont’s Lenin had acquired a super-glued dildo on his bald-bronzed dome, and Mayor Ed Murray, somewhat ridiculously, had called for Vladimir’s removal as a reminder of a painful past.
Our mayor’s bold stance against leftist kitsch is a public embarrassment that rivals Ed Murray himself.
The pain in Seattle isn’t past, and has little or nothing to do with the history of totalitarianism in Russia. The pain in Seattle is now.
At best, the mayor’s ridiculous false equivalency between public art of the right and left is a silly sideshow from the burning issues that face our city. At worst, this great Lenin debate is a calculated distraction from our mayor’s own ruined political future.
From an international point of view, the United States is a place of mind-boggling radical inequality. As an Australian friend once pointed out to me, “America is a first-world country with third-world conditions.”
Seattle is that on steroids.
This, once one steps back from the fog of class war that keeps us confused, is the core issue at stake in Seattle’s mayoral election.
In nations that have the highest concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, there is also the most dismal and entrenched poverty.
In Seattle we have the glittering affluence of the Amazon campus in South Lake Union alongside the 46 percent increase of unsheltered homelessness of the past three years.
For a few brief hours last July, Jeff Bezos briefly displaced Bill Gates as the richest man in the world.
The combined wealth of these two men alone exceeds the 2017 $1.6 trillion projected Gross Domestic Product of Russia.
Here’s an irony. Manchester’s historic Crescent Pub, where Marx and Engels once sat discussing communist theory, was recently sold to Chinese investors for 325,000 pounds.
Another nearby mid-19th century pub was similarly sold a few years prior. That pub has been replaced with 400 upscale apartments.
That should rate at least a plaque.
All discussion of Marx, Engels and Lenin aside, our best public art points toward our most noble community aspirations.
In Manchester one sees bees on display throughout the city.
This proliferation of Apoidea art was inspired by last spring’s terrorist bombing in Manchester, where a shrapnel bomb killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert.
The bees that have since appeared in this working-class city proclaim the values of community, resilience and hard work.
They are the symbols of a community that has united against terrorism and embraced the future they wish to create.
This is public art to make a community proud.
Here in Seattle, where the number of homeless people that die on the streets increases with each passing year, our most relevant monument is the Tree of Life sculpture in Victor Steinbrueck Park.
Here at a waterfront park that is in itself a monument to the theft of Seattle from the Duwamish people stands a memorial to those homeless people who have died on our streets.
Throughout the city, bronze Leaves of Remembrance are epoxied to sidewalks like miniature gravestones. There are eight of these in front of Real Change, and more are on the way.
In Fremont, Lenin stands in front of a Taco Del Mar with his hands stained red and a dildo superglued to his head. No further comment is necessary.
Meanwhile, economic terrorism ravages the poorest of the poor and our own city is being sold to the highest bidder.
If we’re looking for a relevant debate on public art, let’s begin here, with the sculpture that remembers the fallen in Seattle’s own class war.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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