"The Emperor of the Great 9th District" got the towering memorial Thursday that supporters proudly say mirrors his achievements and that critics quietly complain matches his ego.
A $250,000, 10-foot-high artwork covered with photo images of the late Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay was unveiled on a plaza fronting the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Downtown facility that he helped expand.
"It's different, it's quite different, but I think he'd love it," Cartho Bell, a longtime aide to Lindsay, said of the artwork at the northwest corner of Figueroa Street and Pico Boulevard. "He might say it was a little too small, but he would still love it."
The first African American on the council, Lindsay represented the district that includes Downtown for 27 years, until his death in 1990 at the age of 90. Recalled Thursday as a civil rights pioneer with a taste for good cigars and lively parties, the self-described emperor was a key player in Downtown skyscraper developments that opponents alleged drained funds from poorer neighborhoods.
The memorial was designed by Long Beach-based photographer and artist Pat Ward Williams to include an unusual narrative and an optical illusion. "I wanted it to reflect visually the multifaceted personality that I was hearing about," said Williams, a UC Irvine associate professor of art whose work often portrays African American life.
From a distance, three triple-sided concrete pillars reproduce a giant photo portrait of Lindsay, eyeglasses in hand, at his desk. When viewers get closer, that image dissolves and 104 smaller tiles come into focus that contain pictures of Lindsay in private and public life, posed with his family, beauty queens, his staff and African American leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr..
Lindsay's daughter, Sylvia Lindsay Thornton of Chicago, was among the 300 people who attended the dedication. She was stunned to spot a baby picture of herself on one column. "Oh, this is taking my breath away," she said. "A regular statue would have been run-of-the-mill. This is unique."
The artwork's price tag rose 150% from the original $100,000 estimate mainly because of problems in fabricating the tiles, said Chris Simons, the Convention Center's assistant general manager. The money came from a $2.6-million art fund, part of the bond issue for the center's recent $500-million expansion that is being paid through hotel room taxes.
Critics have questioned the need for the monument and have characterized Lindsay as a self-aggrandizer who favored corporate backers and refused to acknowledge old age's infirmities. They recall him napping through council meetings and being manipulated by an unscrupulous, much younger girlfriend.
None of that was mentioned publicly at the ceremony Thursday, although several speakers noted Lindsay's fondness for hiring attractive women as aides. The emphasis was on Lindsay's charisma and his unprecedented rise: from Mississippi fieldworker, to Department of Water and Power janitor in Los Angeles, to key aide of Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, to powerful councilman.
"We talk about the American Dream. If that's not the epitome of the American Dream, I don't know what is," said Councilwoman Rita Walters, who succeeded Lindsay.
Other speakers included former Mayor Tom Bradley, City Atty. James K. Hahn (son of the former supervisor) and Councilman Nate Holden. Council President John Ferraro provoked much laughter by recalling shrewd political advice Lindsay gave him about posing for newspaper photographers: "Make sure you get your hand on the plaque or the resolution. That way, they can't cut you out of the caption."
Lindsay is buried beneath a modest headstone, next to his wife Theresa, at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Bradley said the new artwork's location, so close to Downtown high-rises, was apt. "Gil was not only a pioneer and a role model for young and old alike, he was a man who loved his city," the former mayor noted.