City of Lakewood apologizes for Nazi reference in public art piece

Mar 29, 2023, 1:45 AM | Updated: Apr 13, 2023, 10:05 am

Gateway Arcs...

A statement referencing Nazis on a public art piece in Lakewood is generating anger from residents -- and now a response from the city. (Photo courtesy of Zev Cook)

(Photo courtesy of Zev Cook)

A statement referencing Nazis on a public art piece in Lakewood is generating anger from residents — and now a response from the city. 

The original design of the piece, titled “Gateway Arcs,” was laid out in a Lakewood City Council meeting agenda in 2021. It is described as “two separate arc shapes resting on a compacted gravel base.” Inside the arcs would include slats bearing messages submitted by the community, describing what they love about living in Lakewood.

The project, built by Seattle-based artist John Fleming, was given a budget of $140,000. 

One of the messages included in the final piece read, “Every evil thing the Nazis did was a direct result of their socialist beliefs and socialist policies.” 

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Zev Cook, a Jewish member of the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America, tweeted a photo of the message Monday morning, stating the Gateway Arcs has “deeply anti-Semitic comments and dangerous lies about fascism.”

It quickly made its way to Lakewood City Hall. Communications Manager Brynne Grimley said officials were made aware of the situation on Monday and contacted Fleming immediately. Grimley stated the message is no longer visible as of Tuesday. 

“[The message] does not align with the theme [of the piece] or with our values,” city officials wrote in a statement. “We value and celebrate our diverse community. We apologize for any harm that was caused by the inclusion of this statement on the art piece.” 

Those critical of the message also questioned its historical accuracy. The full name of the Nazi party was the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” However, most historians confirm the Nazis did not follow socialist policies when the party was formed in 1920 and became definitively anti-socialist after 1933, when Adolph Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany and banned all political parties other than his own. 

Accurate or not, Cook said it sets a dangerous precedent.

“Spreading misinformation like this is not only blatantly wrong but also obfuscates the reasons for this ethnic cleansing and [why] targeting of Jewish people happens,” Cook said.  

The submissions were gathered from various community events and online, according to Grimley.

“They were all shared with the artist, and he incorporated them into the piece,” Grimley said. “[Fleming] might have been accepting the submissions from us, assuming we had already reviewed them and vetted them.”

But evidently, there was a breakdown at the city level, according to Grimley, there was “a lack of communication and a lack of processes to determine what would be the vetting of these public submissions to make sure something inappropriate didn’t make it on the art piece.” 

Cook said from her perspective, some elected officials did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the issue once they were made aware of it.

“Don’t overstate your position here. One slat statement by one person out of over a hundred voices from the community? Really?” Lakewood Mayor Jason Whalen said in a Facebook exchange with a concerned resident regarding the Nazi reference. “While we appreciate the need for greater sensitivity (these were selected and installed by the artist), it will be removed and replaced. Don’t toss the baby out with the bath water. Public art should invoke conversation and debate.” 

Statements like that, said Cook, is dismissive and downplay the seriousness of the issue.

“It makes this more likely to happen in the future when people have no understanding of why these things happened in the past,” Cook said.

She pointed to an audit released last week by the Anti-Defamation League that found a 44% increase in hateful incidents targeting the Jewish community in the past year.  

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The mayor could not be reached for comment, but Grimley said as far as the city is concerned, there is no place for that kind of rhetoric on a piece of public art.

“It’s not something that belongs in our community, and unfortunately, it’s really detracted from what is meant to be a welcoming piece of art that shares a lot of our community stories and what they love about living here,” Grimley said. 

This incident will also have a big impact on city policy going forward.

“We’re going to talk about how to make sure this isn’t repeated,” Grimley said. “We understand the harm that this has caused, and that’s not something we want to have our community experience again. We will be looking at [having] everyone on the same page as to what needs to happen before things get passed on publicly.” 

A ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled this Saturday for the Gateway Arcs is still moving forward, according to the city. 

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