Portsmouth's New City Seal
If there’s one thing Portsmouth should not want to commemorate with a new city seal it’s the new U.S. Grant Bridge, which took longer to build than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The businesses in downtown Portsmouth threatened to sue the Ohio Department of Transportation for 8 million dollars for the profits they claimed were lost because of the inordinate time it took to build the bungled Grant Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge took four years to build; the Grant Bridge took six, even though the Grant is half as long and doesn’t contain any pedestrian or bike paths, and is two-lane rather than six. And not long after the Grant was built there were "oops" occasions when the bridge had to be closed for inspections and repairs, on the Kentucky side. It was as if the points on the Ohio and Kentucky shores, which the bridge was supposed to connect with, were not perfectly coordinated.
Wikipedia reports, “ It should be noted that the bridge was critically under-designed and not constructible until C.J. Mahan stopped construction and awaited a near complete redesign by the design consultant.” Mahan was suspected of having more political connections than business acumen. He was not much better when it came to barges than he was with bridges. At one point a barge sank that was carrying a large crane that was to be used to construct the center of the bridge. This was the cause of one of many delays. It was as if the bridge was being built not on the Ohio but on the Amazon River, in the jungles of South America, or on the Khwai River, in Thailand. The hungry and abused prisoners of war who built a railroad bridge in the Oscar winning 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai were efficiency experts compared to those who built the new Grant Bridge.
Its embarrassing history notwithstanding, there at the heart of the new city seal is the Grant Bridge, wrapped in the American flag no less, which brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s remark that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Who is the scoundrel responsible for making the Grant Bridge the center of the city seal? Who dared to besmirch the American flag by having it wrapped around the boondoggled Grant Bridge? Without claiming I am sure of the answer to that question, I will call your attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in the new city seal. I refer to the tiny fleurs-de-lis, if I am not mistaken, alternating with stars, in the outermost circle of the seal.
The presence of the stars I understand because there are the stars of the American flag in the innermost circle. But what I didn’t understand at first are those fleurs-de-lis, if that's what they are, which translated means “lily flowers." As their French name suggests, the fleurs-de-lis symbolize France, but what does the Grant Bridge have to do with France? There were no French engineers associated with the design or building of the bridge. Would that there were. There were some French in the region early in the 1800s, but they were not involved with the founding of Portsmouth, which was named after Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which was named after Portsmouth, England. Portsmouth, Ohio, was Anglo-American all the way.
The only other possibility I can think of is that France was and still is closely associated with high culture and taste, whereas the English and especially Americans were considered, by comparison, especially the Americans, to be crass and uncultured. Now, who among Portsmouth’s politicians presumes to be a model of good taste? Jim Kalb? Heavens, no! Kalb is the embodiment of bad taste, a model of Appalachian crudity that another Portsmouth politician with an Appalachian background has apparently spent his life trying to distance himself from. The upscale antiques dealer wanted to disassociate himself from the grocery clerk, though both of them shared the most important qualification for holding public office in Portsmouth. Both had failed, Kalb as a grocery clerk, Johnson as an antiques dealer. Whether Kevin W. Johnson had anything to do with the design or selection of the new city seal, he had everything to do with the displacement of the old seal, which waves no flags and blackens no bridges and doesn't say, "Stars and Fleurs-de-Lis Forever." The English called it the French disease. The French called it the English disease. Give me the rising sun of the old city seal over the midnight black of the new seal; give me the river without the boondoggled, bungled, embarrassing bridge; give me success instead of the failure that the new city seal, in spite of its flag-waving fanfare, symbolically but unwittingly, underscores.
(For Snuffy Smith's take on the city seal controversy, click here.)