When the Amazing World of Dr Seuss Museum opened last year to great fanfare and large crowds it immediately became mired in controversy as a local artist charged with the task of selecting illustrations from Ted Geisel’s works to replicate on the walls of the converted Connecticut Valley Historical Museum chose to paint this:
Three authors refused to attend a symposium on children’s literature because of the depiction of the “Chinese man with sticks”. People called it insensitive, a mean spirited stereotype, and inappropriate for children. Others countered that Ted Geisel’s views on race were complex and of their time, that children should be given an accurate view of how race was depicted in the past and, even more convincingly, “What?” and “You’re kidding, right?”.
The museum agreed that the hauntingly evil stereotype should be removed and replaced with a more appropriate illustration from the works of Dr Seuss.
Keep that story in mind.
As experts and locals alike have agreed, Springfield has all of the ingredients for a successful and vibrant city from great museums to beautiful parks, from impressive classical architecture to classic residential neighborhoods, and from institutions of higher learning to hospitals; the problem is they’re not well situated to create critical mass. One “great place” is often cut off from another “great place” by an elevated highway, a stroad, some empty lots, some parking lots, some areas of entrenched poverty, or a neighborhood or people that make visitors uncomfortable. The Springfield Museums are a great example of this.
The Quadrangle, as the area where the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, The George Walter Vincent Smith Museum, The Springfield Science Museum, The Museum of Springfield History, The Amazing World of Dr Seuss Museum and the Springfield Central Library is known, is cut off from it surroundings on all four sides for one reason or another. To the south there is the stroad known as State Street. Despite being perhaps one of the most beautiful, oldest, and undeniably the most historic of all such roads in the United States, it tragically makes crossing from one side to the other unpleasant.
To the east there is no access to the Quadrangle except through a parking lot and maintenance storage facility via a hidden service road. To the west the city is working on redesigning and reconstructing Pynchon Plaza to make the 40′ cliff on which Chestnut Street sits less intimidating to pedestrians. To the southwest the soup kitchen at Christ Church Cathedral can make passing through Merrick Park uncomfortable for visitors as many homeless people and assorted hangers on lounge about the lawn or sit on the plinth of Springfield’s most significant piece of public art:
To the north the primary obstacle has also been more demographic and programatic in nature.
At the crest of the aforementioned hill rising from Main Street to the Quadrangle there is a small one story retail building which has housed a liquor store and a convenience store for as long as I can remember. Despite its location between the relatively affluent Mattoon Street and the museums both the package store and the bodega are decidedly low brow and tend to attract a large crowd of loiterers and panhandlers and, given Springfield’s demographics, most of those loiterers and panhandlers are minorities.
From my time working with the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association some 25 years ago I can recall that those individuals most active in the neighborhood have wanted changes at that location for quite a while so I was not surprised to see a number of familiar faces in the crowd when the announcement was made that the Museums, with a large donation from Dr Seuss’ stepdaughter, had purchased the building and was putting together a study group to identify what programming to locate within it; the liquor store and convenience store WILL be out. Follow this link to the story as it appeared in the local media. Click on the “photos and videos” window. Look at the photographs of the building as is and note the demographic make-up of the people standing in front.Look at the pictures of the press conference announcing the purchase and take note of the people. See the artist’s rendering of the new “who knows what we’re going to put in here” and tell me what they look like; not Chinese men with sticks, but perhaps some hipsters with bad haircuts.
I agree with the strategy. I’ve said for decades that it would be wonderful, for example, if visitors to the city judged us favorably for providing free food for the destitute in such a lovely area as the historic Quadrangle. But they don’t. Visitors with the wherewithal to visit can choose which places to revisit and which to not. Seeing a cast of characters apparently taken from the cantina scene in Star Wars, hearing people scream and yell vulgarities, and being asked for money seems to have the effect of discouraging visitors. Panhandlers loitering in front of a liquor store have a similar impact. Make those panhandlers Black and Hispanic in a region where most of the people with the time and money to take a little vacation are White and the effect is multiplied.
Would that it were not so. Tis so. And providing a pleasant experience to visitors and potential residents of the city is important if this struggling city, sitting within a prosperous region, is to ever get off its knees.
All that said, I’m amused at the differing responses to the two circumstances involving the same institution. In the first an archaic stereotype of a national sub group not particularly significant in numbers in the city becomes the center of a national controversy where well known authors and experts in the analysis of the depiction of minorities in children’s literature are called upon to explain that a young child of Chinese descent might see that cartoon on the wall of a museum and feel diminished and alienated. (Holy crap, imagine if a little Spanish kid ever saw the story of Ferdinand the Bull!!!)
In the second the institution purchases a building to remove an obstacle that is, let’s be honest, poor people hanging out right smack dab in the middle of the region’s economic and financial center and its most highly regarded cultural center and…crickets. Some of that will stem from an attitude I’ve heard referred to as a plantation mentality where, you know, “those people” can’t handle liquor or junk food (or casinos!) in their backyard so it’s better if we place them where those things are less convenient for “them” but mostly, of course, this isn’t just consequence-less virtue signaling; it’s complicated.
Race and class are a huge part of this decision. These businesses have been at this location long enough to make clear that they are viable in this location and provide goods which are in demand. The museums acknowledge that their purchase of the property is to transform it into something “the city can be proud of”, but have no real idea what that is apart from it NOT being what is there now; but having a place for the poor to buy booze is clearly not something to be proud of. I guarantee you that if the liquor store were a high end wine and cheese shop and the convenience store an organic produce locovore specialty retailer the museums would not have seen any need to purchase the building and close them and, apart from the “poor optics” it might well end up filling that space with just those things!
So where are the voices fighting against racism and for the oppressed? Don’t poor city folk have a right to buy crappy food and cheap beer? Must they do it out of sight? It would be amusing to see all the crunchy people from the upper valley fighting openly for nips bottles and Slim Jims…for the people!