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Sensi Magazine

Citgo F Yourself

Jan 10, 2019 08:54PM ● By Dan McCarthy
After two years of campaigning and petition work by local preservationists, in November the Boston Landmark Commission approved official landmark status for the world-famous Citgo sign in Kenmore Square.

But it wasn’t to be. With final approval in the hands of Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston City Council, Walsh ultimately vetoed the official designation but noted in a statement the sign would be protected in the long term, in a move he described as “recognizing the significance that this sign has on our landscape in Boston, while balancing the opportunity for horizons to continue evolving in future years.”

The official landmark designation wasn’t a first swing by proponents of the move. Since the sign was constructed in 1965, it has been burned into the collective pop consciousness as an indelible piece of the city as well as one of the most notable shapes of Boston’s metropolitan skyline, and there have been various attempts at landmark status through the years.

And through its more than half century of unofficially serving the public as a wayfinding beacon, as well as creative muse for artists and sportscasters alike, the signage and its steady luminescence have been celebrated in sonnet and song, often while championing other cultural landmarks in the area.

Take the historic “Live At The Rat” recording taped over three days in September 1976 at The Rathskellar, Kenmore Square’s legendary grime-core house of punk, rock, and early hip hop, where Willie Alexander & The Boom Boom Band crooned:

Under the Citgo Sign
She was lookin’ so fine at the Rat
She was my BU baby, and I don’t mean maybe
At the Rat.

But with the landmark status denial, some may cry foul out of a sense of pure hometown pride. Which is why it’s worth casting a critical eye not on the designation per se, but on what the symbol behind the sign stands for.

Boston Globe columnist Marcela Garcia observed in an October oped that the government of Venezuela, Citgo’s majority owner, operates an oppressive dictatorship and that the profits from Citgo directly support a government that starves its own people. For that reason alone, Garcia said it’s worth suggesting the sign itself be changed to promote a more positive message.

“A local Venezuelan native has a creative solution,” Garcia wrote. “Franklin Marval is an artist and a high school teacher in Roxbury who wants to remove the Citgo letters but keep the rest of the sign and turn it into something that’s more aligned with what Boston represents today. To Marval, the Citgo sign is deeply distressing. He recently returned from Venezuela, where he ‘only saw misery.’ When he looks at the sign, he thinks of the empty supermarket aisles in his native country. ‘I don’t want to get rid of the sign,’ Marval told me. ‘I think we just have to change it. People just have to let go. What’s on that sign should reflect all of Boston. It’s better we’re known for who we truly are a diverse and multicultural city.’”

Of course, as is becoming clearer with each passing 100-year-storm, there’s the matter of global warming. Anyone with even a passing interest or familiarity with the issue, and particularly the known impact fossil fuels have had on human-made climate change, could see the conflict embedded in any coastal metropolis joyfully celebrating a global corporate symbol of the oil and petroleum monolith.

That sense of conflict burns even brighter when considering, as world-renowned climate activist and investigative journalist Wen Stephenson phrased it in his book What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines Of Climate Justice, “the fossil-fuel industry and its lobby are prepared to cook humanity off the planet unless somebody stops them.”

The oil industry’s dirty dealings are no secret, but let’s also not forget that in 2007 Citgo became the first refinery a federal jury convicted of violating the Clean Air Act after one of its refineries in Corpus Christi, Texas, sickened and harmed a nearby community with toxic air pollution and a decade of illegal operations. Operations which, the jury found, involved emissions of benzene and other wildly hazardous chemicals, courtesy of two massive uncovered tanks emitting airborne toxins that would waft into nearby communities including the mostly poor, minority neighborhood of Hillcrest.

Seven years later, a judge finally sentenced the company to pay a paltry $2 million fine. Prosecutors in the case rightly pointed out the amount was symbolically meaningless; the same refinery raked in over $1 billion in profits from the illegal activity. Adding insult to injury, in handing down the sentence, the judge refused to announce in court the individual restitution going to the affected families. A curious move, to be sure. A few months later, those same families learned they personally wouldn’t be getting a single dime, not for reimbursements for medical costs or even relocation away from the refinery at the heart of the issue. Nothing.

Then in January 2015, the case was issued a death blow. A three-judge panel of the US Fifth Court of Appeals overturned the entire conviction of Citgo’s violation of the Clean Air Act, destroying whatever symbolic win the case ever served. Melissa Jarrell, a criminal justice professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, told the Texas Observer that the panel decided that “not only are they not victims, but Citgo did not commit a crime, and that to me is just impossible given the evidence.”

Greg Cook, a Boston-based culture writer for WBUR’s The ARTery and the man behind the local arts website Wonderland (GREGCOOKLAND.COM/WONDERLAND), isn’t so sure the city should have given the sign cultural historic landmark status, either. A prickly position for Cook he was one of the local voices Boston’s Landmarks Commission directly quoted in support of the landmark designation.

While noting the city would lose some sparkle without the famed signage, Cook wrote in a post: “Two years ago I ranked the Citgo sign at number 10 on my list of the best public art around the city. The problem is what Citgo stands for...and I regret not weighing this more seriously in the past. As the devastation global warming is doing to our communities to the entire world becomes ever clearer, it’s long past time to part ways with fossil fuel companies. Giving the Citgo sign official city landmark status sends exactly the wrong message.”

Normally, landmark status is emboldened when a site in question is under threat of removal or damage, but there was no real threat to the sign per se, at least one to justify a timely designation. It’s just a celebration of the sign itself, really.

Sure, for most, the sign is emblematic of Boston’s skyline and Kenmore Square, rather than the company or the petroleum industry at large. Others may remember a time when the Citgo logo seen from afar was a symbol for the freedom of the open road, where a gas-burning car taking us wherever we wanted in a free and prosperous land was the mark of American exceptionalism. For Cook, that’s potentially where the real rub is.

“Look, I share a love and fondness many in the community have for the sign. It’s so iconic, a piece of our city, of our skyline,” Cook says over the phone, “but I think we need to find ways to break up with our love of fossil fuels and begin to come to terms with this romance and even sense of nostalgia we have with them, and how they’re preventing us from making very serious, real changes we need to make as a society.”

It’s not a hard line of logic to follow when presented that way. One of the macro challenges we face with addressing global warming is America’s love of cars and how sepia-toned notions of freedom and road trips and the like are bound up in all of it. In that sense, the lionization of the Citgo sign is one example of how difficult it is to make major changes toward reversing the dangerous place we’re currently at. Amongst the more cloak-and-dagger aspects of corporate and political greed and malfeasance in the fossil fuels industry, we are generationally and culturally indoctrinated to love and have nostalgia for the wonderful trappings of fossil fuels, so inescapable in our daily life.

“That we’re having this conversation gives me hope, but symbolism matters, and you have to do the things that make the changes,” says Cook, who admits that climate change reversal, or even awareness, won’t begin or end with the Citgo sign gaining historical landmark status.

“It’s just the wrong symbolism for a city like Boston, which claims to be working hard to make changes on how we deal with climate change and global warming,” he says. “But at the same time, we’re permanently landmarking a symbol in the heart of our community that’s iconic for Boston but also the very kind of corporation (and fossil fuels) that’s at the heart of climate change.”

We’re not saying that was definitely the reason for the decision to prevent landmark status . But it’s a damn fine one.