Cities have skeletons in their closets. In a democratic society with free exchange of information, a town’s dark secrets emerge.
That is one way of looking at a controversy in Pendleton over a statue of a renowned, or notorious, madam who ran a brothel on the town’s Main Street until 1953. Pendleton’s Underground Tour unsealed the Cozy Rooms in 1990. The organization also rediscovered the location of Chinese shops and dens underneath the sidewalks.
But for some Pendletonians it has been a step too far to erect a statue of Stella Darby. They have expressed themselves in our sister newspaper The East Oregonian.
It is a rare small town that embarks on an statuary project as ambitious as Pendleton’s. Its Arts Commission has unveiled statues of an Indian woman, Esther Motanic, Indian cowboy Jackson Sundown and black cowboy George Fletcher. Next up will be a statue of the town’s legendary football coach, Don Requa.
One of the most cogent responses to those who have urged shelving some of these statues was penned by Pendletonian Andrew Picken. He wrote: “History is messy. And when we acknowledge our complex past, we set the table for understanding and progress.”
Picken added: “The statues’ detractors would prefer that others were memorialized, or no one at all. We could ignore history or sanitize it — pretend that nothing was complicated, everything used to work. ... Doing so guarantees disappointment with the real, messy world we live in.”
Here in Astoria the Garden of Surging Waves is a commendable effort to mark a now invisible element in early Astoria’s life. It honors the Chinese who were here in considerable numbers in the early 20th century until the Exclusion Acts sent them home.
If you read Cumtux, the Clatsop County Historical Society’s quarterly, you know there were bustling brothels on Astoria’s waterfront. The building that housed one of them is extant, at the corner of Eighth and Astor streets. It was known as the Douglas Hotel. In a separate location, the madam Anna Bay, operated the Richmond Hotel. Bay is profiled in Astorians: Eccentric and Extraordinary.
The composer Giuseppi Verdi ignited a certain amount of alarm when he put a courtesan (prostitute) onstage in his opera La Traviata. The opera’s central character is modeled on a real woman, Marie Duplessis, about whom a lot is known.
Putting a “fallen woman” in the spotlight was Verdi’s way of expressing his own love for all humanity.
It is true that history is messy. It is also rife with contradiction. We are the richer for acknowledging the details of that messiness.