Boston, City of Other People’s Bad Memories

My home city has had a remarkably long run of peace.  The last time war touched Boston was when it was besieged for almost a year by the colonials during the American Revolution, some 240 years ago.   Few places in the world have been at peace for so long – not the US South or West, nor Asia or India, nor most of Europe.  Even New York was damaged by riots in the Civil War, and by 9/11.

Perhaps that’s why Boston is filled with memorials to other people’s tragedies.  The events have nothing to do with Boston itself, but refugees from them have washed up on its calm shore.  Even generations later, they still want to tell their stories.  The city obliges.   It tracks all public art at this site, which I’ve used for the links below.

Here, for instance, is the New England Holocaust Memorial (sculpture 1995, event 1939-1945):

It’s the largest memorial in the city, and is squarely in its oldest section.  It looks deliberately jarring amongst all the old brick.   There’s one tower for each million victims, and they’re covered in numbers, meant to evoke the camp tattoos.

Not far away is the Boston Irish Famine Memorial (sculpture 1998, event 1845):

The healthy figures are leaving the starving ones behind, a disturbing image.

Rather more obscure are the Hungarian Revolution Freedom Fighters (sculpture 1986, event 1956):

This was from when the Soviets crushed an uprising in Hungary in the early Cold War.

Then there’s the Armenian Heritage Monument, commemorating the “immigrant experience”, but mainly about the Armenian Genocide.  Scuplture 2012, event 1915-1923

The Turks and Armenians have been at it for a very long time, and are still in conflict.

Here’s the Polish Partisans Memorial (sculpture 1979, event 1941): This remembers the heroic and doomed resistance to the Nazi and Soviet invasions of WW II.  The sculpture had been on the Boston Common, but perhaps was too obscure and grim for the city’s main public space, and so is now near the World Trade Center T stop.

The city has plenty of memorials to its own past figures, of course, but they’re generally uplifting in some way.   These are all reminders of tragedy.  Note that they’re relatively new, all from the last couple of decades.   Remembering a past loss is a recent trend.   Is it a memento mori for groups that have done quite well in the new world?  A reminder to other Bostonians that this could happen to them?

More recent immigrant waves have their own tragedies: the Vietnamese in the early 70s, the Cambodians in the early 80s, the Russians fleeing the death of their dream, the Chechens not long after (and the city has anti-memorials to them from the Marathon bombing), Haitians, Somalians, and even students from Tiananmen Square.   They don’t yet have the political clout to present their own stories, but they will at some point.

The city and its universities have more volumes in their libraries (about 40 million) than anywhere else in the world, except New York City (50 million).  It already acts as a global memory.  It’s acting as a sculptural memory too.

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