As usual, I get lost on Capitol Hill, riding the bus too far, long past the neighborhood of Volunteer Park and the Asian Art Museum, and decide to exit when I see a sign for a Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park.
It turns out to be a disappointing but educational jaunt, a poorly designed space, a grassy knoll demarcated into terrace steps with cheap concrete block and an ugly industrial hand railing. A fountain – turned off for the winter – holds a bed of forlorn river rock or maybe just low budget stones and a few odd bits of trash, along with a modernist sculpture that was not designed in the round, so that its front faces the city, with its back to an anticipated audience that might be seated, amphitheater style, for memorial events or community functions.
Embedded into the concrete block walls and fountain ledge are bronze plaques offering brief and scattered details of King’s life, writings, and contributions to society, to be read clockwise, I quickly discover, after an initial start around the fountain reading left to right. I wonder how many other folks read this much text, though? Do other folks read the backs of cereal boxes, and wonder about the folks getting paid a salary to write the copy? Do other folks wonder about the folks paid to edit the text and set the type? At least one of the plaques was proofread none too carefully, boasting a sentence fragment, verb disagreement, and a misplaced comma, which shall endure until the end of time, or until the next millennium, whichever comes first. Another describes, somewhat ambiguously, “He was stoned as he led a peaceful march through crowds of angry whites…” using a verb that might have been interpreted in at least two different ways in 1991, when the memorial was commissioned. I wonder what this language might mean one hundred years from now?
The grassy knoll is already in need of mowing this wet spring, polka-dotted with dandelions, and punctuated by a plastic sack from a neighborhood grocery and still more bits of trash. While the modernist sculpture is centered within its oblong fountain bed, the fountain itself is not centered to the street running perpendicular below, an almost textbook example of hilly, one-point perspective, leaving this viewer with the sense that something is somewhat askew.
I wend my way uphill slowly along the switchback path to the top of the knoll, crowned with a concrete retaining wall and still more bronze plaques, larger still and situated hierarchically dominant to the information about the Reverend’s life and works. Well, here’s the really important information, then, the “recognition of the individuals, organizations [I am something of a fan of the Oxford comma myself, but I appreciate the acceptability of going without] and businesses whose generous contributions made the construction of this memorial possible.”
In spite of their visual dominance, the plaques, which include a description of the memorial space along with credit to a lengthy list of donors and public figures, are not readily accessible. I avoid a muddy puddle and navigate two concrete steps down to stand on a narrow ledge before them. The point size and pica measure are uncomfortably large and wide at that viewing distance, however, requiring the viewer to step back, down a steeply sloped grassy knoll, slick with spring rain. I shiver, trying to envision a birthday celebration in muddy or icy mid-January. As I turn to make my way back down the hill, another white woman enters the park, walking her two dogs. She gives me an overly cheery greeting, as if to assure me that she will collect her pets’ waste before she leaves. I smile and greet her cheerfully in return, as if to reassure her that I do not assume that she is someone who would not pick up after her pets, even if she prefers two breeds frantically yapping, “Kick me! Kick me!”
Seattle does not always – or even usually – design its public spaces so thoughtlessly. Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the Asian Art Museum situated within Volunteer Park are two examples dramatically different from my experience of this neglectful and neglected tribute to Dr. King, situated within a county that shares his name. The Olympic Sculpture Park, located within walking distance of downtown and on the Waterfront bus line that transports tourists to and from their hotels, boasts breath-taking, 360-degree compositions that integrate seascape, cityscape, and carefully cultivated landscape along with its thoughtfully installed sculptures designed by such heady names as Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, and Tony Smith. From the steps of the Asian Art Museum, the viewer’s eye rests on – or runs through – a round, negative space within an abstract sculpture, past a reservoir with a flagpole at its far end to the iconic and seemingly omnipresent Space Needle in the distance, a trebling of composition sensitive to back, middle, and foreground. Flowering cherries or plums cascade their lacy branches in conversation with the park’s spring greening.
Visually ill-conceived and typographically overbearing public spaces cannot fully obscure powerful language and ideas, thankfully. From the plaques I am reminded that Dr. King was assassinated just forty-three years ago, almost to this day. I am reminded of fragments of his dream. I am inspired by the audacity of his language:
And I wonder, from a state threatening to cut off basic food for the poor while offering a salary in the high six figures to attract a “rock-star” CEO of a university president, where the biggest idea for economic recovery sacrifices the environment – “I know…let’s build a bigger plane!” – where the Secretary of State provides support for big business while breaking links to resources for women seeking non-violent lives in an era where our technology permits ever more invasion of the fragility of those lives, I wonder, where are those other-centered men?
If all lives have equal value, as cheerfully proclaimed from the construction fence demarcating the site of the new Gates Foundation campus from Seattle’s mean streets, does that mean the lives just outside the fence, begging for food at the market within walking distance, or squatting to defecate in mud holes in the ground, or sleeping underneath plastic tarps to shield their bodies somewhat from our infamous Pacific Northwest rains, have as much value as the lives of the software engineers in Redmond? Or as much value as the lives of the software testers in Shanghai? Do young lives yearn for culture and freedom for their spirits, or only for education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for their minds?
As our education system shifts from No Data Left Behind to Racing Around in Circles, I wonder if the prostitutes in Seattle have as much value as the prostitutes in Mumbai? With whom, I wonder, are we competing? Is the snake swallowing its own tail, not recognizing the source of the pain even as it begins to digest itself?
How does one race to the top of a sphere? Even though I am an artist, I learned in math class that a sphere has no top. Do all lives have equal value, or are some lives on this lumpy, aleatory globe still much more equal than others?