Where poetry and civic purpose meet

Times Staff Writer

The Holloway Park Veterans' Memorial, which will be formally dedicated today at 11 a.m. in West Hollywood, is considerably different from the plan that originally was chosen for construction in 1999. That scheme suggested a place of contemplative respite within the city. The final design, at the busy intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Holloway Drive, is anything but.

What it has sacrificed in quietude, though, it has gained in simplicity. And in the trade-off, a lost opportunity may have been remade into a new one.

Designed by landscape architects Douglas and Regula Campbell, who worked with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, the Veterans' Memorial is the first permanent public art component of the master plan for West Hollywood's main thoroughfare. The triangular plot of land awkwardly abuts a pancake restaurant parking lot.

Originally, the plan called for a sunken courtyard with a pool, entered by curving paths and enclosed by low walls inscribed with poetry and a ring of laurel trees. At the opposite end of the site, where the two busy streets come together, a monumental fountain, shaped like the intersection of two pyramids stacked point to point, would add both a dynamic marker to the location and a sonic element to help blur the sound of traffic. To one side, a row of flagpoles completed the ensemble.

Budget limitations, which cut the $1.2-million plan by nearly two-thirds, made the original idea unfeasible. (A model for the first scheme can be seen at the designers' Web site, www.campbellcampbell.com/westholly.html.) As re-conceived, the built memorial is more open and less dramatic. The sunken courtyard and all the water elements, including the monumental fountain, are gone.

Instead, the ground is flat. Curving pathways of decomposed granite lead into the site, where a wide, circular concrete ring holds an olive tree aloft. A short, gently curved wall along Holloway Drive holds four flag poles -- one each for flags representing the United States, California, West Hollywood and soldiers missing in action. Leaning against the wall at the base of the flagpoles, a row of five ornamented shields represents the five branches of military service.

Pinsky chose fragments of a dozen poems. Themes of war and peace, creation and destruction, are inscribed on the circular concrete ring. Poetry by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Denise Levertov and seven others appear, including portions of Pinsky's famous Vietnam ode, "Serpent Knowledge."

The strength of the memorial is its simplicity -- indicated first by the spare concision of great poems. A couplet from "Serpent Knowledge," written on the flagpole wall, forms an elegiac rumination on a gravestone's epitaph: "To speak words few enough to fit a stone/Demands that we be naked, free and final." Meditating on the idea of memorializing, it sets an eloquent tone.

The symbolism in the chosen plantings is similarly plain-spoken. The site is bounded by 12 laurel trees, their horseshoe arrangement echoing the classical laurel wreath awarded to a heroic warrior.

The elevated tree at the center of the ring offers a literal olive branch, putting another classical peace symbol at the memorial's heart.

Time's passage is marked in several ways. The number of laurels is repeated in the number of poets, whose 12 fragments of poetry are inscribed in 12 segments marked around the concrete ring. A row of evergreens that, over time, will grow to screen the adjacent parking lot provides a verdant image of unbroken continuity. Sunny, sturdy day lilies bob in several planting beds.

In an ancient gesture of armistice, the warriors' shields have been laid to rest just outside the memorial's central zone. No one needs armor in a place of peace. As sculpture and landscape the ensemble is thoughtful, dignified and restrained.

It's also a bit dull. The changes in the original design, especially the removal of water elements, are a significant loss. With peace as the memorial's conceptual cornerstone, the noisy hubbub of the traffic intersection (not to mention the absence of places to sit) impinges on its practicality as a place of contemplation.

Frankly, though, this might not turn out to be such a bad thing. Since contemplative activity is unlikely, the park-like space of the Veterans' Memorial could develop civic usefulness as a public gathering place.

West Hollywood needs it. In recent years residents have responded to horrors far and near, such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the vicious assault in 2002 on Treve Broudy, by pouring into the streets with public demonstrations -- although without a natural locus for assembly. Battles for liberty and social justice are still being fought. Gay civil marriage, for example, is being ramped up as a wedge issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. The uncluttered openness of the memorial site could make it a focal point for assembly.

And what more appropriate place? Some dissent was voiced when the idea of a Veterans' Memorial was first announced for West Hollywood, given the city's large gay population. Federally sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians continues to plague the American military. Yet it was rightly pointed out that this is not a monument to the military, but a memorial to veterans. From the American Revolution to Iraq, untold tens of thousands of soldiers have been gay and lesbian.

Indeed, a good case can be made that mass conscription during World War II was a key catalyst for the gay liberation (and other civil rights) struggles that erupted in the postwar years. The military threw together in close quarters citizens of all descriptions -- in ways they had never interacted before in American society. The experience bonded them in matters of life and death. A Veterans' Memorial, consecrated with the blood of ultimate national sacrifice, offers a powerful focal point for the ongoing struggle for equality.

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