Connecting state and local government leaders
Is its design offensive and insensitive? Like some other controversial monuments in public spaces, there's no easy answer.
Route Fifty has been featuring dispatches from a city-county summer roadtrip in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere along the way. (Pardon the recent gap in dispatch frequency, it’s been a busy September!) An Introduction to the Series | Previous Stop: Saugatuck, Michigan
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — I once worked with an Iowan who thought that Kalamazoo was a made-up place. We were on a conference call when Kalamazoo came up in conversation and she admitted that she assumed that a city with such an unusual name like Kalamazoo did not seem real.
But Kalamazoo is indeed a real place and not some far-flung dominion of King Friday’s Neighborhood of Make Believe! It’s the county seat of Kalamazoo County, the home of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College and, as many beer lovers know, Bell’s Brewery.
In policy circles, Kalamazoo is known for the Kalamazoo Promise, a program funded through generous anonymous donors who cover the full cost of undergraduate tuition at a public college or university in the state of Michigan for graduates of Kalamazoo's public schools. (The Kalamazoo Promise has been mimicked elsewhere, including a program in Baldwin, Michigan, recently profiled in The Atlantic.)
For my city-county roadtrip travels, Kalamazoo was a quick stopover on my way to Cincinnati (and, eventually, onward back to Washington, D.C.).
In Bronson Park, a rectangular downtown public space that takes up two city blocks adjacent to the Kalamazoo County Building and Kalamazoo City Hall, there’s a giant fountain. And it’s not your typical fountain.
Upon first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought the fountain was something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo or one of his California commissions from the 1910s or ’20s.
In fact, it was designed in 1940 by Italian-American artist Alfonso Iannelli, who had designed the “Sprites” in Wright’s now-demolished Midway Gardens. It fits in quite nicely with Kalamazoo's Art Deco City Hall and County Building.
During a pitstop in Kalamazoo, I asked a friend about the fountain and he told me its more unsavory history: “The Fountain of the Pioneers,” as it’s known, apparently depicts white pioneers casting out or otherwise subjugating local American Indian tribes.
The abstract scene, depicted in cast concrete, has been periodically a source of debate over the years.
As the website PrairieMod wrote a few years ago, the head of the Kalamazoo Public Library asked Iannelli in 1940 what was depicted:
Regarding the meaning of the ‘Fountain of the Pioneers,’ the scheme of the fountain conveys the advance of the pioneers and the generations that follow, showing the movement westward, culminating in the tower symbol of the pioneer…, while the Indian is shown in posture of noble resistance, yet being absorbed as the white man advances. The pattern of the rail indicates the rich vegetation and produce of the land.”
The chairman of the Fountain of the Pioneers Study Committee for the Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission wrote PrairieMod about the controversy, saying that falsehoods have been repeated in media reports about the fountain:
But looking beyond what has been repeated for decades, unbiased inspection of the statue itself will show that the American Indian is not kneeling: There's nothing in his upright posture or his overall height, compared to that of the European, that suggests the American Indian has bent knees of any sort; and there are no moccasin soles sticking out behind his cape.
Naturally, the artistic interpretation is up for, well, interpretation. A commenter who identified as a member of the Ojibwa nation wrote:
What nobody realizes so far, is the fact that this historical monument displays the Anglo American view of events and their ethnohistorical significance. This sculpture is simply not an accurate representation of the collective history.
That's certainly a fair point.
The controversy regarding the fountain boils down to this question PrairieMod asked in 2011: “Does artistic significance trump political correctness? Is this a case of insensitivity or misinterpretation?”
That’s been part of a larger question many people have been asking in recent months in the wake of the racially motivated shooting massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year.
Should controversial and offensive symbols of history be removed from public spaces? We’ve already seen the removal of the Confederate battle standard from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the campus of the University of Texas.
Mayors in Mississippi have refused to fly the state’s flag on municipal property because it features the Confederate battle standard. In Minnesota, there are calls to rename Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, since it was named for South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, a champion of slavery. In Alexandria, Virginia, there have been discussions to rename streets and public buildings that honor Confederate heritage.
And in Hawaii, the use of the word “Aloha” as a Hollywood movie title has sparked controversy, too, within Native Hawaiian and Asian-American communities.
Earlier on my roadtrip in Frederick, Maryland, I stumbled upon the a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which declared that slaves and freed slaves cannot become U.S. citizens.
A historic plaque about the Dred Scott decision stands adjacent to the Taney monument giving historic context about the infamous Supreme Court decision. That seems to be an appropriate way to preserve history while putting it into appropriate context. Still, it's tricky and each controversial monument or symbol exists within its own set of circumstances to weigh when trying to figure out what the appropriate action should be.
So what should be done with the “Fountains of the Pioneers” in Kalamazoo?
Ripping out the cast-concrete fountain from Bronson Park isn’t exactly a simple task like lifting a statue off a pedestal or taking down a flag from pole. Architecturally, the fountain's design reflects Art Deco elements seen in the adjacent public buildings, so there are additional historic aesthetic factors to take into consideration.
Earlier this summer, The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that the city received an $83,000 challenge grant to restore the deteriorating fountain in advance of the structure’s 75th anniversary. The article makes no mention of the controversy about the fountain’s design and there’s nothing at the fountain that mentions it either.
Perhaps there should be.
Next Stop: Cincinnati
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.