I was reminded the other day, as I lounged on a bench on the Santa Fe Plaza, of the great controversy of 1973 about this center of the city, the Plaza. The same Plaza which had welcomed loafers like me for more than 300 years.
In 1973, the Plaza was a fire storm of debate. That's the year that the City decided to make the Plaza a no-parking zone, catching the Plaza merchants off guard. Within days, 35 of those merchants, led by Tom Moore and Walter Kahn, organized to reverse the City's decision but the City was holding fast.
The City had built two spacious parking lots – one behind J.C. Penney's and one across the street from the Hilton hotel, neither of which were being used by down town shoppers. The City thought that banning parking on the Plaza would divert shoppers to those lots.
After some wrangling, a solution of sorts emerged. The merchants would give their customers one hour of free parking in any city lot and pay the City for it themselves with dues collected from all the plaza merchants. In this way, the City got money, the merchants got customers and everybody was more or less happy.
Of course, parking was a problem on the Plaza anyway in 1973. The City had embarked upon an ambitious plan to improve the Plaza, to the tune of $150,000 – half of which came from a generous federal grant. Plans for the venerable center of the city included the following:
—The streets that bordered the Plaza would be paved either with
brick or colored concrete. And since those streets were considered part of the city's “arterial” road system, the state kicked in another $67,000. And the plaza merchants, led by the First National Bank chipped in another $29,000.
—The present bandstand would be demolished and a portable band-
stand structure would replace it.
—The banco (bench) which surrounded the Frontier Monument
would be reduced in size.
—The bell from the battleship New Mexico would be removed to a
site in the Capitol complex, next to the Bronson Cutting statue.
_The Gen. Kearney marker and the End of the Trail markers, however, would remain intact.
And the whole plaza would receive extensive landscaping and all of this work under the direction of Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem.
Well, it all sounded good but then a curious thing happened. Since the Plaza was being renovated anyway, the City Council unanimously decided to remove the monument in the center of the Plaza. That bears repeating. The City Council – unanimously – voted to remove the 110 year old Civil War Monument from the center of the Plaza. When the news hit the papers, Santa Fe might as well have been struck by a meteor. What an uproar!
The City Council were apparently responding to a letter from Governor Bruce King who had been urged to request removal of the monument by someone from the American Indian Movement which believed the Monument was, and I'm quoting here, "a source of perpetuating racism and prejudice through the character assassination of our forefathers." This was because the plaque on one side of the monument read:
"To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles
with Savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico."
That “savage” part apparently rankled the sensibilities of the modern-day Indian of 1973. The other plaque on the monument, by the way, honored union soldiers who battled the rebels during the Civil War.
Citizen reaction was predictable. First, there were those lofty-minded individuals who were racing to be politically correct, urging the removal of the obelisk so as to not to hurt the feelings of any Indian whose eyes might fall upon the plaque. It was, they claimed, the Spaniard or the Anglo who were the savage ones, not the beleaguered Indian.
Interestingly, the five nearby Pueblo Governors were united in keeping the Plaza monument where it was and to let history stand. "This is a reminder of what happened in the past," said Governor Paul Baca of Santa Clara "We feel much the same way about our history, that it should not be changed to fit the times." And savage might even be accurate, Baca said, because “we didn't give up our lands without a fight.”
Then came the historians, who argued that the wording on the plaque merely reflected the times and only survived as a curious but beloved anachronism. Its removal would be tantamount to book-burning or re-writing history. One even pointed out that the term “savages” only referred to the nomadic Apache and Navajo – opponents in a bitter war for two centuries – not our peace-loving neighbors, the pueblo Indians.
Then there were the die-hard Santa Feans who didn't want any change in Santa Fe at all, no way, no how. So what, they wrote to the editor of the local paper, all that happened too long ago to make a difference. One suggested a petition, not to remove the monument, but to recall the City Councilors who voted for the stupid idea.
Them came the jokesters who mocked the controversy. James B. Alley, a local lawyer proposed a second monument dedicated to “the Indians Who Saved their Land and Culture from the Barbarian Hordes of Anglos Who Descended upon Them from Urban Neon Jungles." Then there was the wag who said that as long as we're getting rid of offensive monuments, let's take down the Statue of Liberty with that insulting reference to immigrants as “the wretched refuse.” Then there was the prankster who taped up a cardboard sign on the monument itself to replace the word Indians with Conquistadors so that it read the “Savage Conquistadors.” By the way, this was many years before someone actually chiseled out the word “savages” and solved the problem once and for all.
As it happened, the City had no say about the monument. In fact, any effort to take it down would exact a severe penalty and not just the wrath of the voters. Turns out the Plaza was a both a National Historic Landmark and a protected State Cultural Property. So, no changes were possible on the Plaza without serious federal and state legislation. Oh, and that $75,000 federal grant the City was about to receive to fix up the Plaza – well, the federal government said the City might as well kiss it goodbye if the Plaza Monument were removed.
Even the City Council, dumb clucks that they were, could see the handwriting on the wall. They hastily convened and – unanimously – rescinded their vote to remove the monument from the Plaza. Instead they favored a plan to add yet another plaque to the Monument, explaining the other plaques. This was the same plan, incidentally, which was favored by the Governor of NM, the Indian Pueblos and federal government. The new text would read:
Monument texts reflect the character of the times in
which they are written and the temper of those who
wrote them. This monument was dedicated in 1868 near
the close of a period of intense strife which pitted
northerner against southerner, Indian against white,
Indian against Indian. Thus we see on this monument,
as in other records, the use of such terms as 'savage'
and 'rebel.' Attitudes change and prejudices hopefully
And that's what happened on the Plaza in 1973.
By the way, the 1973 Santa Fe City Council consisted of eight busy men, mostly sober businessmen, who donated their time to lead the city – Robert Berardinelli, Elmer Longacre, Sam Pick, Robert Stuart, Joseph Allocca, Clarence Lithgow, Alex V. Padilla and Mike Scarborough. It was this City Council that will always be remembered in Santa Fe, not for benevolent government or progressive leadership, but for the jaw-droppingly awesome stupidity of their unanimous vote to remove the Plaza Monument in 1973. And the next time you see one of them, tell them I said so.