Recently, a friend of mine called me from his seat on the patio of P.F. Chang’s on the Plaza to report, somewhat hysterically, that the Seville-inspired architecture was decorated with swastikas.
I initially assumed he’d had a few too many lychee-and-green-tea-infused cocktails, so I filed his message under W for “Whatthefuckever.”
But eventually, curiosity got the best of me, so I ventured onto the Plaza to search for the symbol. First, I stood by the giant, concrete Chinahorse near the patio and tried to approximate my friend’s vantage point. I stared at the tower across the street near the Cheesecake Factory, squinted, and tried to imagine someone drunkenly seeing swastikas in the decorative latticework. It was a stretch.
With Nancy Drew-like diligence (but without getting knocked out and “crumpling” to the ground like Nancy in every single book), I kept looking. Finally, I spotted what my friend must have been talking about, there in the colorful tile work of the P.F. Chang’s façade. Oh, yeah. Them’s swastikas.
After the initial shock wore off, I tried to muster up some righteous indignation over Hitler’s favorite cuff link charm decorating our hallowed outdoor mall. But even though I'd heard that J.C. Nichols, the original Plaza visionary, was a big, fat racist because of his unenforceable covenants that restricted blacks and Jews from purchasing property in some Johnson County communities, I wasn’t offended.
Neither was Rick Hellman, the editor of The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, when I asked for his opinion. Though he was surprised to hear about the swastikas, he said, “You know, the swastika does predate Nazism. Short of any Nazi context, I don’t think you should find it offensive.”
Dave Boutros, the associate director of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (whew!), filled me in on more Plaza history. He said the building that houses P.F. Chang’s is one of the oldest on the Plaza, built in the 1920s or early ‘30s.
“My guess is that it would be more of that Southwestern motif, rather than the European swastika,” he said. “Hitler comes to power in ’33, but … not until 1938 did anyone really pay that much attention in the United States.”
Boutros doesn’t think that Nichols was racist. “I think he discriminated toward groups in the covenants and restrictions specifically on an economic basis. And that was the primary reason to discriminate against blacks. It would have also been a reason to discriminate against Jews because of the issue of people who did not want to live in the same neighborhoods as the Jews, but, frankly, there were a lot of Jews who did live in the Nichols areas and, particularly, on the Plaza. That’s why I’m not inclined to think that that was the determining factor, but we don’t have any writings specifically that tell us that. I doubt that he would have consciously used the swastika as a symbol.”
The 2,000-word Wikipedia entry about swastikas goes a long way to prove that the pinwheel design has symbolized auspiciousness, luck and peace since well before it’s 20-year stint decorating Hitler’s lapel. The design graces Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist temples all over Asia. It almost makes the yin/yang and peace symbols that hippie movements and teenagers have appropriated seem downright boring.
So I’m going to get a swastika tattooed on my shoulder.
Just kidding. -- Nadia Pflaum