Lorado Taft, "Fountain of Time," 1922
In Chicago last weekend we visited the south side on a bright Sunday afternoon, and stopped at the Allison Davis garden. It's a modest stone circle ringing a lawn dedicated to the memory of the man who was the first African American faculty member to receive tenure at the University of Chicago in the 1940's (though his appointment also specified he would not seek admission to the faculty club). The small park is sited at at a racial dividing line where the professor walked every day on his way from his African American neighborhood to his office at the university. Around the circle are four tablets which contain a brief biography as well as some quotations from Professor Davis.
The park is designed partly so visitors might have a better of view of the adjacent "Fountain of Time", Lorado Taft's enormous scupture dedicated to the heroic forward struggle of humanity.
All very inspirational, no? Yes, yet also something else. One of the tablets quotes Professor Davis writing that "If people of different cultures cannot associate freely, they cannot learn one another's special form of the American language,manners, morals and psychological goals." Very moving, and yet the park which commemorates these words and its author bore no evidence of such association. The bare little park had an aura of desolation about it. The gap between the white and black neighborhoods on Chicago's south side is as great as ever--one of Professor Davis' sons noted at the dedication ceremony in 2005 that the mean annual income of the black neighborhood to the south was $13,000, while it was $126,000 in Hyde Park just to the north. The most direct moment of cultural free association we experienced that morning in the black neighborhood next door was a well thrown egg that landed square on the passenger window of our cruising rental van. In the park itself, the most visible sign of human interaction was a small defacement in one of the tablets, which noted that "in 1994 the U.S. Postal service had issued a stamp" honoring Professor Davis for his accomplishments. The word "stamp" had been neatly chisled away--- "stamp" had been stamped out, so to speak. A darkly humorous gesture from an anonymous poetic vandal.
Meanwhile, next door the monumental "Fountain of Time," is showing signs of distress. It was created in 1922 out of reinfoced concrete aggregate, a new and cheaper alternative to marble. The aggregate has eroded, and Taft's heroic figures have already begun to lose their distinctive character. Grass leaps up at the base. The large fountain basin was empty.
I'm standing in the middle of the circle of the Professor Davis' park in Chicago's south side, but I'm thinking of what Our Town's Professor Willard says about the early history of man in Grover's Corners: "Early Amerindian stock, Cotachatchee tribes--no evidence before the 10th century of this era--now entirely disappeared." Not so long from now the marching heroic figures in the Fountain of Time will be amorphous rounded lumps, and all the ringing words of Professor Davis will have faded away. You can watch all of this happening right before your eyes in the Allison Davis park. And yet, for awhile at least, the park and its honoree remind us, there's still life on this earth, life "straining away, straining all the time to make something of itself."