Since January 2021, a fence has surrounded Lee Circle on Monument Avenue, blocking access to the once-vital center of public demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Local and national media attention was lavished on the paint-covered base of the Lee Monument, which was rightly hailed as among the greatest works of protest art in American history. What was less recognized, but equally true, was that the circle was one of the most interesting public spaces in America as well. The former Lee Circle (or Marcus-David Peters Circle) became a center for community action, commemoration, creativity, discussion, and speech–in short, the things that make democracy function. A community garden, a makeshift basketball court, and a memorial to the victims of police brutality were some of the things that enlivened this authentically public space. The conversations and actions that took place there were the beginning of a new and better Richmond, but the closure of the circle cut those conversations short.
The City is now considering an ill-conceived plan to re-landscape the circle, which the City’s Planning Commission can and should reject. The Urban Design Committee, which advises the commission, has already wisely recommended against its approval. Any plan for Lee Circle, even a temporary one, should allow and encourage people to gather and make use of their rights to speech and assembly in public space. Unfortunately, the proposed plan divides up the circle with narrow mulch paths and fills the remaining fragments with dense plantings, thus preventing groups from assembling there. Lee Circle is the largest space on Monument Avenue and should not be treated merely as a flower bed or median strip. The current design seems to sweep the past under the rug rather than acknowledge difficult and ongoing conversations about racism, history, and community in Richmond. For the sake of the avenue and our city, these conversations need to continue.
Although the new design for Lee Circle is ostensibly temporary, the absence of any plan, schedule, or public process for re-envisioning Monument Avenue means that it could be in place for many years. The design itself seems to account for this, with long-lived trees like magnolias and other plantings filling nearly every inch of space, at a price tag of $100,000. The plan should instead be simple, economical, and provisional so as not to interfere with future conversations that will determine a more lasting design for Monument Avenue’s public spaces.
It is well past time for the fence around Lee Circle to come down, but new barriers should not be erected in its place, no matter how well disguised. The City should reject the proposed design and develop a plan that encourages the full use of public space for speech and assembly, so that the conversations that began in 2020 can continue.