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Canyon of Heroes—and Zeroes

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Canyon of Heroes—and Zeroes

New York’s ticker-tape parade plaques offer insight into our history, whether good, bad, or obscure. August 22, 2017
Politics and law

The French newspapers, in reporting news of America’s ongoing guerre des statues, offered this tidbit from the United States last week: “le maire de New York veut retirer une plaque commémorative de Pétain.” This item, indicating that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio would remove a plaque commemorating the “collaborateur nazi,” Philippe Pétain, puzzled the French. Where, when, and why had New York commemorated the chief of state of Vichy France? Pétain, it turns out, had been honored in one of Lower Manhattan’s 206 ticker-tape parades years before he collaborated with the Nazi regime, when he was still regarded as an unambiguous French hero for his deeds in the First World War. Removing his plaque, as the mayor will soon do, will erase a piece of New York’s quirky history.

New York first held a parade in Canyon of Heroes in 1886, for the Statue of Liberty. Three years later, New Yorkers celebrated the centennial of George Washington’s presidency. The first person to show up in person for his own parade was Admiral George Dewey, the hero of Manila during the Spanish-American War in 1899. After an 11-year gap, former president Theodore Roosevelt got the parade treatment after his return from an African safari.

Lower Broadway got used to frequent parades. The 1920s saw 23 people so honored, ranging from English Channel swimmers to Marie, Queen of Rumania. By the 1950s, New Yorkers were tiring of parades, “when as many as three were held in one week,” notes the Downtown Alliance, a business-backed group that keeps track of parade history (the prime minister of Pakistan, the governor of Mexico City’s Federal District, and ten foreign mayors together, in case you were wondering). By the early 1960s, the Alliance observes, “there had been so many ticker-tape parades that they came to be viewed as synthetic and routine. . . . Businesses in lower Manhattan complained of disruptions.” Mayor John Lindsay decided to cut down, converting some of the events into private receptions.

In 2004, the Alliance recognized each past parade with plaques embedded in Broadway’s sidewalks. The honorees are eclectic. It’s easy to understand why New York feted General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 or Winston Churchill in 1946. It’s less easy to understand today why the city honored the Order of the Knights of Pythias in 1955, or, for that matter, the New York Mets in 1962, when the baseball team had played only a single game. (And that year, the Mets set a record for futility.)

Pétain got his parade in 1931, when he was still the hero of the Battle of Verdun. It was nearly a decade before Pétain would administer Nazi-occupied France and help direct the deportation—and thus eventual extermination—of tens of thousands of Jews. After World War II, he was convicted of treason and lived the remainder of his life in disgrace.

From today’s perspective, Pétain is no hero. Yet despite its name, the ticker-tape route’s Canyon of Heroes doesn’t depict permanent heroes but rather those whom New Yorkers wanted to celebrate at the time. Though no other honoree falls to Pétain’s level of ignominy, many others are no longer unqualified heroes today. If we’re going to revoke Pétain’s parade retroactively, for example, we certainly should do the same for Pierre Laval, the French premier who got a procession just four days before Pétain. A firing squad executed him after World War II for collaborating with the Nazis.

What about Charles Lindbergh, who was honored in 1927 for his solo transatlantic flight? In 1941, Lindbergh accused “Jewish groups” of “agitating for war” with Germany and warned that “their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” What about the crew of the dirigible Graf Zeppelin, honored in 1928? Their blimp later became the pride of Hitler’s airship fleet and was used by Joseph Goebbels in the service of propagandizing the Nazi regime. Dino Grandi, the Italian fascist politician who criticized Mussolini for not being fascist enough, was honored in 1931. William O’Dwyer, a 1950 honoree, had to resign as New York mayor after a police-corruption and organized-crime scandal. (De Blasio ought to think twice before taking down his plaque.)

None of this history is to equate the New York Mets with Philippe Pétain—or to suggest that U.S. cities should continue to honor Confederate notables with statues in public squares. But the record of New York’s ticker-tape parades, engraved in downtown Broadway’s sidewalks, is not a record of whom New York honors today. It is, rather, a reflection of imperfect New York—and American—history. The city honored some people—like, say, Sir Denys Lowson or Ruth Elder—who might not be identifiable to a single passing New Yorker in 2017. It honored others, like Pétain and Laval, for good reasons, before these men gave us reason to regret doing so. To remove Pétain’s plaque is thus to create a hole in history, and to create an inconsistency. If we take out the Frenchman, then others will have to go, too— the dirigible crew, for starters, and probably Lindbergh, too.

Better, instead, that New Yorkers should walk the Canyon of Heroes, and wonder: who were these people? Why are long-forgotten Olympic athletes listed along with presidents and generals? Leave Pétain in place, and he’ll suffer the ultimate justice of being ignored; most of the people who walk over his plaque don’t notice it. Others can marvel momentarily at all these obscure names from the past placed together, and then move on. ​

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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