Strife is a carnival: a ruckus at the Fountain of Time | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Strife is a carnival: a ruckus at the Fountain of Time


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One day last May Joanne Samuels woke up to find a carnival being erected across the street from her south-side apartment. By nightfall the carnival was in place, and for the next ten days Samuels and her neighbors in the 17-story Midway Gardens Apartments, 727 E. 60th St., were subjected to kids tramping across their lawn, cars filling up the parking spaces on the street, and the carnival's loudspeaker squawking endlessly with a song whose lyrics sounded something like "I'm gonna pop your cootchie."

"It was a terrible disruption," says Samuels, who's also chairman of Midway Gardens Tenants Council. "It was not something I wanted to live through again." But it looks as though she and her neighbors will be subjected to a repeat performance. The carnival is scheduled for the same location for the four days beginning April 29.

The carnival has become the subject of a heated dispute between local residents and 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, one of the carnival's sponsors. The residents say Troutman has abused her authority. "She didn't ask us if we wanted to have a carnival outside our building," says Samuels. "She just stuck it there."

Troutman says the carnival is needed to raise money for local sports programs and that its drawbacks have been exaggerated. "They complained about people trampling their grass and causing trouble, but as far as I know none of that happened," she says. "We had police patrol the carnival and people clean up after it. I was told that I was the first alderman who did something wholesome for the children of this ward."

Much of the conflict stems from the carnival's location. It was and will be held along the eastern edge of Washington Park, right in front of Lorado Taft's venerated sculpture Fountain of Time. Across the street is the Midway, the grassy stretch that runs through the University of Chicago and connects Jackson and Washington parks. Just west of Washington Park is a community of the same name, one of the poorest in the city. Some of its residents contend that the carnival desecrates Taft's landmark.

"This fountain is something our community can be proud of; it attracts visitors from all over the world to our community," says Cecilia Butler, who lives in the area and is president of the advisory council that governs the park. "Now our alderman has the audacity to stick a two-bit carnival there. There has got to be a better place."

Taft, a popular sculptor in the early years of this century, kept a studio in Hyde Park. He wanted to juxtapose the Fountain of Time with a "Fountain of Creation" at the western edge of Jackson Park. Along the Midway he planned to install statues of the "world's greatest idealists." However, the only part of the dream Taft achieved was the Fountain of Time, which was inspired by the following couplet written by Austin Dobson: "Time goes, you say? Ah, no / Alas, time stays; we go."

"The words brought before me a picture which fancy speedily transformed into a colossal work of sculpture," Taft wrote. "I saw the mighty crag-like figure of Time, mantled like one of Sargent's prophets, leaning upon his staff, his chin upon his hand, and watching with cynical, inscrutable gaze the endless march of humanity--a majestic relief of marble I saw it, swinging in a wide circle around the form of the lone sentinel and made up of the shapes of hurrying men and women and children in endless procession, ever impelled by the winds of destiny in the inexorable lock-step of the ages."

It took Taft nearly 15 years to complete the project, which is 110 feet long. The "endless procession" includes the figures of refugees, soldiers, and artists (including Taft) huddled together, looking tortured and anguished, as though destiny's winds were bitter and cold.

The fountain was unveiled in 1922, and over the years it has become a popular tourist site. "In the summer we take tours by there at least 20 times a day," says JoAnne O'Connor, president of Chicago Is, a company that offers bus tours and event-planning services. "It's a magnificent work and very important to an understanding of the development of the Midway. I can't believe that the city would allow a carnival to go there."

Last year Butler advanced similar arguments, but could not convince Troutman to move the carnival. The Park District had no say in the matter since the carnival was not being held on its property. The permit needed to close off the street then as well as now had been approved by the City Council, which generally approves the requests of local aldermen in these matters.

"I felt that it would be a tragedy if something happened to that statue because of the carnival; I still feel that way," says Butler. "We were lucky that nothing happened. But no one knows how long our luck can go on." When Butler found out that Troutman intended to have the carnival again, she joined forces with residents of Midway Gardens to block it. On April 7 Troutman appeared before Butler and about 30 residents at a meeting in the building.

Troutman's strategy was to mollify her opponents by linking the carnival to her attempts to improve the ward. She started the meeting by recounting her successful efforts to encourage two banks, Cole Taylor and First Chicago, to open branches nearby. She explained that she is sponsoring the carnival in conjunction with a local community group and a local church and that the carnival helps to raise money for youth baseball and basketball leagues.

After about 30 minutes the residents asked to speak. "I got up and told her that it was an audacity to place a carnival near the fountain," says Samuels. "Then I told her about the inconvenience of the traffic and the kids trampling across the lawn and the music with the raunchy lyrics and all those other things."

Other residents echoed these comments, and Butler chimed in with concerns of her own. "I told her we had done too much work in Washington Park to have that carnival mess things up," she says. "We convinced the Park District to build a new pool that will include a water slide. I had to correct her about the name of that fountain. She called it 'Father Time.' She doesn't even know the name of one of the great things in her community--no wonder she doesn't care."

Butler and the others asked if the carnival might not be moved to a different spot, noting that there were many vacant lots in Washington Park. "Troutman told us that the carnival operator preferred to have it there because the other places were too close to the projects," says Samuels. "Now, I ask you, who's supposed to have control over these things--the alderman or the carnival operator?"

For her part, Troutman left the meeting unconvinced that opposition went beyond the people in that room. "There were 30 or so people there, very few of them under the age of 65," she says. "They kept saying they didn't want children walking across their lawn. It was an elitist, bourgeois type of attitude and I didn't appreciate it. I told them that they represent only one building and I have to think of a whole ward and that we needed some kind of wholesome activity for the children."

Troutman charges that some of the opposition is political. "I can't do anything to please Cecilia [Butler]," she says. "She supported my opponent in the last election, and she is negative about anything I do. At the meeting she was hostile. She was swearing. She said 'damn.' I said, "How dare you use that word in front of these seniors.' She said, 'They say it on TV.' I said, 'There's also sex on TV, would you perform that here?'"

As for Taft's fountain, Troutman says it would not be damaged by the carnival. "I respect that fountain, but I don't worship it," she says. "There are statues all over Grant Park, but that doesn't stop the mayor from holding festivals there. This is the best location to have the carnival; it's close to the university so we'll get people from Hyde Park. We would alienate people by having it closer to the projects. I may not like it, but there are those people with elitist attitudes who won't go there."

Butler has attempted to rally opposition from outside the community, but so far her results have been mixed. Officials from the Art Institute and the University of Chicago have privately told her that although they disapprove of the site, they do not want to cross Troutman, perhaps concerned that she might call them elitist as well. The Art Institute is currently overseeing a $400,000 restoration of the sculpture.

"I've done some digging on this, and I discovered that while Arenda's having her carnival, the American Planning Association will be meeting in Chicago," says Butler. "It will be an embarrassment when they take those planners out to the fountain and they see a tacky old carnival. Arenda says we're against children, but that's not the issue. We're just trying to fix up our community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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