Making Nice With History

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If you want people to forget history or never learn it, make it pretty and clean. Erect statues of historical figures that make them look august and lifeless. Omit tragedy, controversy, blunders, politics.

To see airbrushed history, visit San Francisco's City Hall. It's a marvelous building, faithfully restored and maintained in its original grandeur and elegance. But architectural preservation is not historical vitality.

Under the statue of George Moscone outside the mayor's office, there appears this quote from him: “San Francisco is an extraordinary city because its people have learned to live together with one another, to respect each other, and to work with each other for the future of their community.” You would not know from that statue or anything else at City Hall that Moscone was assassinated in the mayor's office, refuting the very words of his with which we have chosen to commemorate him.

The inscription beneath the bust of Harvey Milk is only slightly less misleading. “I ask the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give 'em hope.” Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the city and probably the country, may as well have been a winning contestant on “American Idol” who died peacefully in his sleep.

The South Light Court has a few relics of the city's past. None indicates the drama, difficulty, and significance of what has happened in this building, much less elsewhere in the city. How ironic that a building celebrated as a shrine to the city's history is instead its tomb.


When I was young, I was taught if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. That rule may work for socializing, but when it comes to history, as City Hall reminds us, if you say only what is nice, you will have effectively said nothing at all.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Friedlander.

Jeremy Friedlander lives in San Francisco.