Opinion: Monuments, Names and the Like; What Does History Have to Say

West Hollywood Library as seen from the courtyard of the Pacific Design Center.

There is discussion amongst the residents and the City Council about a proposal to name our county library in honor of John Heilman, a founder of West Hollywood whose long, dedicated service on the City Council shaped the city, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the long-serving United States Supreme Court justice who inspired many young women to work for social justice.

When I hear of people proposing to honor a person by associating a certain structure (bridge, building, arch) and inscribing his name on it for all to see, my favorite rejoinder is Percy Shelley’s 1818 short poem Ozymandias. It speaks to the impermanence of such honorariums and how the dust of history eventually covers up all. Yet, we humans in the Western World, convinced of our superior culture, insist upon continuing to attempt to honor our more important citizens by continuing the practice.

There are hundreds of schools throughout the country named Horace Mann and I should expect to be astounded if one in a million could tell me who Horace Mann was. Perhaps because my schooling took place in Massachusetts, I am well aware of Horace. He was a Massachusetts politician who, for various reasons, led a successful campaign for a general public education for all in the state.

Another name, Andrew Carnegie, is much better known for the funding and installation of many public libraries throughout the country. Further, he appears in the history books as one of the early industrial millionaires.

However, nothing is permanent in the world of “naming” . A recent plea in the Los Angeles Times was to NOT name a portion of Figueroa Street after Kobe Bryant because “Renaming even a part of Figueroa Street for Kobe Bryant would begin to erase an important chapter of our city’s history.”  Perhaps it would be more fitting to erect a number of basketball courts in his name and place them in parts of the city where their daily use would be a more useful monument to the beloved sports figure than a strip of asphalt.

Then, there is the “business end” of naming. Because I have reason to be at UCLA nearly every day, I had taken notice of how many very large signs were affixed to all of the buildings in the medical complex all bearing the names of people who had donated large sums of money for their upkeep and continuation. Charity is no longer the act of giving anonymously, it must be celebrated in the most blatant fashion, in keeping with our culture’s adoration of the rich and famous.

In contrast, in another UCLA building with the usual donor’s nomenclature is a small auditorium with a simple brass plague dedicating the space to a man who altered the course of mental-health care in the world of neuro-psychiatry and brought renown to the university for how forward thinking the assembly of bright minds he brought to his projects and to the university faculty. Due to extensive water damage the auditorium will be renovated — and reamed for a donor. History lost again.

Of course, everybody in West Hollywood knows who Mr. Plummer was, right? As would be expected, few know and most don’t care that the park retaining his name is land he once owned as an early rancher of the area.

On the other hand, everybody knows who John Heilman. He has been with us from the beginning, from the earliest days of hope to make West Hollywood a city with a different take in a world of sameness. Heilman is our city’s history and the principal proponent of the county library’s location and the enlargement of recreation facilities at West Hollywood Park. If we are to name the library for an individual, none other than John Heilman comes to mind.

But what about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? For one thing she is celebrated throughout the country in many ways and has been elevated to national figure. Her place in history is secure and widespread. Her connection with our library would be tenuous at best and a mere wink to her honor. If we must, let us celebrate our own local figures and strengthen our understanding of the history of West Hollywood.

Ozymandias

I met a Traveller from an antique land,

Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lips and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,

‘The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

and on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”

Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!

No thing beside remains. Round the decay

Of the Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Shelly, 1818

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