Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reagan plaque the equivalent of Lincoln’s blown nose? Or just ideology at work?

I still recall a cartoon once published by the State Journal-Register newspaper of Springfield, Ill. – one meant to mock the historic preservation aspects of certain groups in the capital city who get worked up at the thought of Abraham Lincoln doing just about anything.

Too bad Thompson never brought talent to Chicago
In that cartoon, a plaque was erected on a downtown Springfield street corner informing passersby that on a distant date in the past, Lincoln had pulled out a handkerchief and blown his nose on that very spot.

THAT’S AN EDITORIAL cartoon (by Mike Thompson, who later took his talents to the Detroit Free Press). It is not meant to be taken literally.

Yet the thought of it is what popped into my mind on Wednesday when I read a report about the demolition of an apartment building in the Hyde Park neighborhood where Ronald Reagan lived briefly as a young child.

For the news-oriented website says that the apartment at 832 E. 57th St. is being demolished, but University of Chicago officials plan to compensate for the potential loss of history by erecting a plaque at the site.

REAGAN: Not really a Chicagoan
Ronald Reagan once rode a tricycle along this very sidewalk. Perhaps that is what the plaque could read? Or we could always revert to the standard Ronald Reagan slept here.

FOR THE PERIOD in which Reagan’s father lived with his family in Chicago was literally around the time that the future U.S. president was about 2 years old. The actual structure isn’t likely to give us any real insight into Reagan’s life.

The idea of a plaque here strikes me as silly. If there were legitimate history to preserve, then the structure itself should have been maintained. If not, then why bother?

Reagan, of course, is an Illinois native – although the bulk of his life was tied to central Illinois. The home where he lived in Dixon and Eureka College where he was educated are legitimate sites of interest to anyone intrigued by the former president.

But he’s not exactly anyone with Chicago ties – which is all good and fine. I just think it cheapens real history to try to claim that this aging structure is somehow all that significant.

PERHAPS THE UNIVERSITY’S desire to turn the land into a strip of green space next to a parking lot that will be needed as the University of Chicago hospitals continue to expand is a practical use of the land.

It’s just that the idea of a plaque strikes me as an attempt to reach a cheap compromise with ideologically-inclined people who would like to have Reagan-named or Reagan-tied things in every single community in the nation.

They would like him to become an all-encompassing presence in our society as he never was in life! Which strikes me as being more about trying to re-write history, than preserving it.

Personally, I chuckle at the thought of that apartment building being “historic” largely because historians were never able to determine which of the six units of the three-story structure the Reagan family lived in. Which means the plaque would have to read Reagan slept somewhere near here.

AND AS FAR as Reagan himself is concerned, he did reminisce once about seeing horse-drawn fire engines going by the building, or going out for a walk once and getting lost – winding up on the Midway Plaisance just a couple of blocks to the south.

For a 2-year-old, I’m sure that was an adventure. To the rest of us, it would be much-needed exercise. We all should walk around a bit more than we do now.

Does this mean we should now put our historians to work to try to figure out which exact spot along the Midway that a youthful Reagan wound up at? We could erect the plaque saying Ronald Reagan once got lost here.

Ronald Reagan once got lost near here. Image provided by Chuckman Collection.
To try to equate Hyde Park with Dixon as a significant site in comprehending Reagan is a distortion that we shouldn’t support. One-time first lady Nancy Reagan had stronger ties to Chicago than husband Ronald, and she largely went out of her way to downplay that part of her life.

BESIDES, SOMEHOW I suspect that the real motivation for having a Reagan-related site in Hyde Park is for the ideologues to somehow try to undermine the speculation that a future Barack Obama presidential museum and library will be built in conjunction with the university where Obama was once an instructor at the law school.

Maybe the ideologues will try to pass it off as an alternate site for people to visit. Ditch the Obama presidency, they’ll say. Knowing them, they probably will get all worked up to travel to the site where they’ll get to see a batch of parked cars nearby.


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