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The news is filled with stories of demolition and the efforts to preserve varied, oft-doomed spaces, be they an abandoned factory, church, school or former place of culture. The energy around these efforts also varies, depending on the perceived importance of each location, and whether that saving hook be historical value or proximity to more-advanced, promising developments.
In the context of needed saves, the Fountain of Youth Park in East St. Louis might be the ultimate underdog, with a location that’s right out in the open, but in a part of our region that’s cash-strapped for even essential services. To rebuild a project that reflects a sense of fun, hopefulness, even whimsy... well, we’d guess that it’s a long shot for revitalization.
The Fountain of Youth Park sits near East St. Louis’ City Hall, on a pocket of land surrounded by roads and a pinch of commerce; nearby is a bank, a gas station, and some ESL civic services. It’s the kind of mini-park that, one would assume, was meant to provide a bit of calm in the urban environment around it. The park’s got some green space, but the striking visual touches are primarily given over to the fountain and pool. With a bright, ‘80s-vibed, turquoise coloring, the closer you get to the fountain, the more the structure pops. And the more details emerge.
On all sides, child-made tiles are affixed to the pool’s exterior. Similarly, three of the four corners feature small, painted statues of children, in the universal style of yard ornamentation. (And I have to just say it: in a predominantly African-American community, it’s more than a bit quirky to walk up and notice these distinctly Eurocentric, Shirley Temple-type children.) As is true of countless building projects, the bricks that make up the patio around the pool are inscribed by the names of local businesses, some of which have gone away since the park’s dedication. More affecting are those that are laid to commemorate the death of a donor’s loved ones.
Driving by the site on a somewhat-regular basis, I’ve not ever seen the water turned on; in fact, in the years since noticing the fountain and pool, the water’s never been on. Nor have I seen anyone perched on any of the benches, created from simple building blocks and paint. The guess here is the work needed to revitalize this space wouldn’t be that much, but might be roughly the equivalent of what it would cost to dig it all up for unadorned green space. While some monuments to our recent past seem well-worthy of a rescue, this one brings mixed emotions: the clear intent of the fountain is to bring a smile to the face, and to invite the viewer to drop by for a moment’s contemplation on ESL’s history.
With no water in action and with a marked, physical decline of the space, the invitation to stop, pause and reflect is a whole lot less than it should be.
Despite many opportunities, my only physical stop at the Fountain of Youth Park came last fall. A friend was in from out of town, and we bounced all over the East Side on a drizzly, dreary, overcast day, stopping at a few ruins, along with a couple roadside diners and taverns. The Fountain of Youth wasn’t a planned stop, but one of those “Why not now?” moments. It was worth taking the time, even though traversing this pocket park only takes a few minutes if you’re in a rush.
I was reminded of the Fountain of Youth this past Sunday, as I took that Fourth Street exit in ESL, cutting away from a traffic jam ahead. I zipped through Downtown ESL for a different entrance to I-64. In effect, I was taking a shortcut. And, in doing so, I drove past the park again, giving it a glance, before quickly moving on. If the park called out to me to visit, I didn’t hear it. Maybe next time.
Photographs by Thomas Crone