Time is a strange thing.
While it doesn’t heal all wounds as we’ve been led to believe, like water flowing over rock, it does takes the edge off and dulls sharp memories – good and bad.
Time can make heroes out of heels, and vice versa, and change our perceptions of people, places and times gone by.
Over time, the origins of ideas and answers begin to blur.
And only the monuments remain. . .
As a result, with the passage of time, we often get trapped in the “halos and horns” conundrum, where we view people from the past through our hypercritical modern lens, often demonizing historic figures for their acts and omissions – while canonizing others as we rewrite history or engage in collective denialism.
That judgmental arrogance allows us to paint our modern selves in a morally and ethically superior light as we criticize the ghosts of long-dead notables.
Recently, there has been a brewing tempest in a teapot over a long-forgotten coquina monument, originally erected to memorialize a forgotten Daytona Beach mayor, Edward Armstrong – a politician of a different era – who is now best remembered as a dictatorial shithead and corrupt ward healer with few redeeming civic qualities.
Normally, I like to stay focused on the present – rarely averting my eyes from current events – but I found the strange saga of Mayor Armstrong and his ill-fated marker intriguing.
Born in 1880, Mayor Armstrong was a Halifax area grocer who served five terms during the 1920’s and 30’s – ultimately becoming the undeniable Boss of Daytona Beach politics during the Great Depression.
A big part of his political success was due to his ability to garner support from African Americans – making jobs available for minority candidates during a time of segregation and focusing on community improvements – and in 1935 he won by a landslide after receiving 91% of the black vote.
He also had an unwritten requirement that city employees kickback 10% of their pay. . .
In addition, according to reports, “…the Daytona Beach News-Journal, often accused him of corruption that included buying votes, squandering and misappropriating funds, political favoritism and tampering with elections.”
In a recent treatment by The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s Mark Lane, we learned that, in addition to his underhanded political machinations, Mayor Armstrong was instrumental in building some of the Halifax area’s earliest infrastructure – to include a public transportation system, a waterworks project, municipal airport – and seeking New Deal funding for an ocean side park, built by the Works Progress Administration, that included the Clock Tower, Boardwalk, Bandshell – and the Edward H. Armstrong Monument. . .
Mayor Armstrong is perhaps best known for his involvement in “The Battle of Daytona Beach” which saw police officers, armed city employees and supporters in a standoff with Florida National Guard troops at City Hall following a state investigation into “fiscal irregularities.”
You can read all about it – it’s a quaint part of our colorful history here on the Fun Coast. . .
When Mayor Armstrong died in January 1938, the Daytona Beach City Commission and all the right last names of the day couldn’t agree on the wording for the Armstrong plaque – ultimately voting 3-2 against putting up anything at all.
The brouhaha got me pondering what local historians and cyber-archaeologists will think of us a hundred years from now?
I mean, what’s changed?
Although we haven’t had the National Guard show up (yet), is our local government anymore responsive or transparent than it was when the Armstrong Machine was in power?
Could our elected and appointed officials be more disrespectful of our concerns or irresponsible with our hard-earned tax dollars?
At least we don’t have politicians who play favorites based upon our ability to contribute to a political campaign – and we don’t hear rampant claims of “fiscal irregularities” – or widespread criticism of the lack of oversight that allows egregious abuses in government spending or the use of public funds for private projects. . .
Thank God that type of political corruption, corporate welfare and bureaucratic dysfunction is a quaint part of our past, right?
Interestingly, the Armstrong controversy is centered just feet from “Ritchey Plaza,” a sempiternal monument to another former Daytona Beach mayor and founding member of the Halifax area’s present-day ‘in-crowd,’ Glenn Ritchey, which was built smack-dab in the smoldering remains of our once thriving Boardwalk – the epicenter of the now tattered and fading World’s Most Famous Beach.
With the scourge of unrestrained blight creeping in all directions, and the pungent odor of urine wafting on the sea breeze, I always questioned the optics of the monument – complete with Adirondack chairs and eight (count ‘em) Royal Palm trees – strategically positioned around one of those “Remember, I coughed up cash” plaques commemorating the largesse of the donor class and reminding Mayor Ritchey who really cares. . .
I guess it’s only right, though – it’s a Halifax area tradition – and Mayor Ritchey deserves his due.
After all, Mr. Ritchey’s contemporaries – like our High Panjandrum of Political Power, Mori Hossieni, has his name emblazoned on more buildings at Daytona State College and Embry-Riddle than you can shake a stick at – and His Royal Highness Hyatt Brown has a museum, and will soon have his name emblazoned on the tallest building in downtown Daytona complete with a sprawling riverside esplanade – while our own First Family of Auto Racing, the France Dynasty, has statuary galore.
I guess at the end of the day, Mayor Armstrong’s only true sin was not cementing his own legacy by ensuring his constituents paid for a plaque to adorn the self-aggrandizing monument to his own self-importance.
Fortunately, around here, we always learn from history, right?
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