Peace Plaza’s name stays the same, but the drama’s not over yet
It makes sense that a city whose name means “city of peace” would have a Peace Plaza. For almost 20 years, Salem has enjoyed its Peace Plaza. This reporter remembers many happy afternoons reading a book while her children joyfully splashed their little feet in the fountain.

But in February 2006, an activist group rose up and protested the use of the term “peace,” and demanded that the Salem City Council change the name, remove all signs about peace, and raise a war memorial in its place. Although the City Council ultimately decided to retain the plaza’s name, this issue has not gone away. A City Council sub-committee continues to wrestle with issues that were raised during the controversy. More meetings are scheduled before the Plaza’s ultimate fate is determined.

The Peace Plaza is the open area between City Hall and the library. It is a sturdy concrete court with a large fountain as its focal point. It sports a wall of peaceful sayings and a tribute to a local peace worker as well as a United Nations flag, which was one of the major points of contention for the protesting group.

The idea for the Peace Plaza was first conceived in 1983, after a group of civic-minded citizens worked on the concept of creating a “peace park.” They thought it would be a fitting symbol of the city of peace’s commitment to playing a role in achieving peace throughout the world. The group incorporated and looked for a park site close to downtown. They obtained approval from City Council and worked with a local landscape architect to design the area. The design included banners and flags around the fountain and attached to the facades of the library and City Hall facing the plaza; a decorative wall along the east side of the plaza; a large, raised flower bed surrounded by a bench and brick pavers; an information kiosk; and renovation of the existing Friendship Gardens near the library.

The Peace Plaza was officially christened in 1988. The now controversial U.N. flag was added, with City Council approval, in 1989. Other flags flown at the Plaza have included the national, state and city flags; rainbow/world flags; flags and banners noting the word “peace” in several languages, and an Arbor Day flag, flown one week each year in honor of the annual Tree City USA proclamation.

The group that first conceived the idea of the Peace Plaza has been responsible for maintenance and repair of the area ever since.  They work with many local civic groups on displays, including Salem Public Library window displays. It was the “Windows for Peace” display about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that raised the hackles of the veteran’s group who objected, saying that the display appeared to criticize the bombing.

After the February council meeting, a subcommittee was formed, comprised of Councilors T.J. Sullivan, Rick Stucky, and Brent DeHart. Their charge was to consider three issues that arose out of the controversy. The first, whether to rename the Peace Plaza, has been settled, with the City Council showing no interest in changing the name.

The second issue concerns the management of the windows facing the Plaza, windows owned by the City of Salem. Currently (and for the past 18 years) the library uses the windows for its own display purposes for six months out of the year, and Peace Plaza, Inc. manages the windows the other six months, working with local groups to create displays that center on the message of peace. The activist group who protested the Hiroshima display demanded equal time to use the windows to show a counter-perspective. The subcommittee is trying to determine if there is a freedom of expression issue at stake here, and if so, how best to deal with the issue.

The third issue concerns the U.N. flag that is flown in the Plaza. Anti-U.N. sentiment is strong in some segments of American society, although the U.S. is one of the charter members of the U.N. The subcommittee is discussing this matter as well.

The City wants to take a careful approach to these issues so that no one’s rights are stepped on, and so that diverse views are represented.

“The Peace Plaza was a grassroots effort from day one,” said Ed Jochum, Community Services Director for the City of Salem. “The mission was to promote peace and to stay away from controversy. We don’t want to lose the initial purpose of the Plaza.”

The subcommittee will meet again in late July or early August to complete its recommendations. The meeting will be open to the public. Contact City Hall at (503) 588-6261 for date and time of the meeting.