Friday, March 6, 2015

The Immemorial Memorial

The McCormick memorial, viewed from the street
The Aaron McCormick memorial sits in the 3500 block of Clinton Parkway, in Lawrence, Kansas. Directly behind it sits a bank, while off to one sits a brewpub, but its block is dominated by a massive Hy-Vee grocery store and surrounding strip mall. Half a block from the memorial, one of Lawrence’s major municipal bus stops disgorges students and workers throughout the day, attracted by the location’s proximity to commerce, food, and several suburban-style apartments.

Unfortunately, almost nobody walks past the memorial itself. Though it sits along a sidewalk nearly wide enough to land small aircraft, most people getting off the bus either walk the other way, toward the crosswalks connecting the stop to housing, or cut across the grass toward the grocery store. The sidewalk remains mostly disused, except by occasional cyclists. Clinton Parkway’s wide, straight lanes permit, even encourage, in-town commuters to carom past close to highway speeds.

This precipitates the question: if we construct a memorial, and nobody witnesses it, have we remembered anything? Memorials, like America’s famous memorials on the Mall in Washington, or London’s ubiquitous blue plaques created by English Heritage, encourage passers-by to step outside themselves and connect with their people’s shared past. Yet 20th Century American suburban design ensconces people in climate-controlled cars and encourages them to shoot past communal geography, comfortably secured in an eternal, high-speed present.

Lawrence, Kansas, exists in constant tension. Though Lawrence’s historic downtown attracts tourists, shoppers, and culture seekers statewide, its more far-flung streets reflect modern interpretations of urban design. The post-WWII architect Le Corbusier popularized the belief that humans find traditional, pedestrian-friendly streets intimidating, and encouraged an urbanism based on starkly vertical buildings separated by swaths of green space. My generation grew up on massive lawns abutting sidewalks virtually unused by anybody old enough to legally drive.

But Le Corbusier’s vision of humans frolicking in wide expanses of foliage proved naive. Though tree-lined streets make walking a sensual pleasure, crossing wide expanses of undeveloped greenbelt is boring, and huge lawns push everything far apart, making useful pedestrianship both impractical and unpleasant. Few adults walk anywhere as a daily pursuit. Reliance on automobiles means Le Corbusier’s vaunted greenswards have mostly been buried under concrete and repurposed as parking, perhaps mankind’s most dehumanizing invention.

"A gift to the city of Lawrence
in memory of
from his family and friends
May 1999

by Aaron McCormick
as interpreted by Prof. Elden C. Tefft
site design by Kim T. Tefft"
Aaron McCormick’s memorial includes no information about McCormick himself. Presumably, from the copper sculpture, McCormick was an artist, though his vision has been re-interpreted by somebody else here. Nothing, not even dates, identifies McCormick for passers-by; he could literally be anybody. Presumably, the donors who subsidized this memorial intended it for those who knew McCormick personally, a geographically constant way to retain him within living memory. I initially mistook the memorial for the bus stop.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who cannot connect with this memorial. Despite being surrounded by foliage, from a foreground of low-growing juniper to its backdrop of tall bushes, the site is shamefully littered. Cigarette packs, half-shredded Styrofoam cups, and hardened french fries surround the artwork. The accumulated detritus suggests community members, insofar as they see this memorial at all, consider it a place to congregate for lunches and coffee breaks, then abandon their trash.

Whoever Aaron McCormick was, his memory deserves better than casual litter. Yet whatever organization created this memorial hasn’t sent enough caretakers by to remove the trash. This forces me to wonder whether McCormick’s loved ones ever visit his memorial. Wedged between Hy-Vee’s massive flat parking and Clinton Parkway’s vast, runway-like acreage, its placement seems designed to actively discourage casual visitation. It’s too small, too unobtrusive, and too damn far from anything to attract foot traffic.

Other privately owned public places have better maintenance in Lawrence. Private donors converted a vacant lot along Massachusetts Street into a Japanese-style Zen garden, a tranquil haven amid the street’s constant commerce. (Ignore the spilled bongwater smell.) This space gets used. But Mass Street’s shoulder-to-shoulder design encourages pedestrian traffic. People already present, already walking, visit this park amid their day. Clinton Parkway has no such pedestrian traffic; visiting the memorial requires interrupting one’s existing routines.

The Aaron McCormick memorial encourages viewers to pause, reflecting silently on life’s fleeting nature. Yet placing it amid suburban sprawl designed to discourage introspection contradicts that purpose. In this tiny space, half the area of a typical one-car garage, individualistic ideals of urban design collide with human desires for stillness and transcendence. But the collision goes unnoticed. We who discover this space must wonder: what future exists for communities existing entirely in an all-encompassing present?

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