Thursday, January 08, 2009

Portland's WWII Memorial

Portland WWII Memorial

Portland WWII Memorial


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A few photos of Portland's hidden and all-but-forgotten World War II memorial. It's by the main entrance to Memorial Coliseum, but to the right and down an inconspicuous flight of stairs, so the passing crowds don't notice it's there. Unless you go down those stairs, there's nothing else at the Coliseum to indicate who or what it's supposed to be a memorial to. Below, there's a courtyard with a small fountain, a couple of benches, and a black stone wall with the names of Oregonians killed in the war. The wall looks a lot like the Vietnam Memorial in DC, but it's several decades older.

Portland WWII Memorial

There's kind of a semantic argument about whether this area or the entire Coliseum is the memorial. It's not just idle hairsplitting; various Powers That Be keep broaching the idea of "redeveloping" the old Coliseum, which involves tearing it down and replacing it with various pet projects (a major league baseball stadium, more condo towers, etc.). They say it's obsolete and falling apart, and furthermore it competes with the Rose Garden next door, and get a load of that 60's ugliness -- eek! Those plans get a bit more complicated if the whole building is a war memorial. Some people are likely to object to tearing it down, if that's the case.

Portland WWII Memorial

There's nothing particularly memorial-like about the Coliseum itself. The memorial part was basically tacked on by that era's Powers That Be to get the public to cough up the cash for it. "Veterans" was society's root password back then. Say it, and the public will let you have whatever you want. Today's root password is "sustainable". A few years ago, it was "homeland", and I think it was "the children" before that. Further back, it was "war on drugs" for quite a while. At any time, in any era, there's always a root password. In any case, the city fathers felt we needed a shiny new sports arena, so they said "veterans", and the citizens dutifully opened their wallets. So after an ugly bit of urban renewal (which involved tearing out the historic core of Portland's black community, but that's another story), our fair city ended up with a big new Coliseum, with an inconspicuous little Memorial tacked on the side.

Portland WWII Memorial

So wrapping the Coliseum in the flag was a great way to get it funded back in the 50's, but now we've run up against the Law of Unintended Consequences. It's commonly thought that the Coliseum is hopelessly obsolete these days, and only partly because it lacks the luxury skyboxes required in these less-egalitarian times. CIties around the country have spent the last 15 years or so tearing out grey 60's concrete sports venues and replacing them with glitzy new venues, but the Coliseum has to stay, because tearing it out would be an insult to the nation's veterans, even if the "memorial" bit was originally stuck in for somewhat-less-than-sincere reasons.

Portland WWII Memorial

Now, I'm not a big war afficionado. Society glorifies war far too much already, and we've spent a huge pile of money in recent years building increasingly grandiose memorials to various wars and other Important People And Events (see for example the big new WWII memorial in DC). I don't exactly see the recent memorial-building frenzy as a sign of a healthy, forward-looking society. But that said, the current state of affairs is quite sad. There's nothing more forlorn than a forgotten memorial. I've argued before that society should think carefuly before going around throwing up monuments, naming things after people, living or dead, etc. I won't bore you with the full argument again, but I will say this WWII memorial is a great illustration of my point.

Portland WWII Memorial

I'm tempted to argue that the memorial, or at least the walls with names, should be moved somewhere less obscure and more accessible. But I worry that just plays into the hands of the city's greedy developers. If the memorial is the one thing that keeps the Coliseum from being torn down, and you move the memorial, a heartbeat later the Coliseum will be gone, and our tax dollars will go to build even more "market rate" condo towers in its place, for those rich Californian empty-nesters the city inexplicably loves so much. A post on BlueOregon advocates moving the Coliseum to save it, but tearing it down would be cheaper, so that's probably what they'd do -- unless maybe you came up with a really upscale-Portland use for the building, like making it the world's largest doggie day spa / yoga studio / swanky martini bar megaplex.

Portland WWII Memorial

I feel like I have to kind of tiptoe around this and reiterate that I'm not actually accusing any particular person of doing this, because it wouldn't be nice to accuse someone of this -- but it does seem to me that, if one wanted to blow up the Coliseum, it would be in one's vested interest to neglect the memorial. Not do anything to damage it intentionally, of course, but simply devote as few resources as possible to its upkeep, in classic Portland passive-aggressive fashion. Eventually -- hopefully -- the public will get outraged about it and demand action, and one can then propose a solution that involves condo towers. As I said, I'm not accusing anyone in particular of doing this. I'm not a mindreader, and I can't speak to people's inner motives. I'm just saying that if one wanted what the Powers That Be appear to want, one's coldly logical best course of action would be indistinguishable from what's actually been happening for years now. Although perhaps that's just a remarkable coincidence. I really couldn't begin to speculate about that. I mean that. Honest.

Portland WWII Memorial

Portland WWII Memorial

Portland WWII Memorial

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