The controversial Granite Creek Park bench built by Prescott College student Kristin Anthony and adorned with tiles by hundreds of people was, before its destruction, a symbol of the diversity of our community. Now, in its ruin, it is a reminder of dividedness.
There are those whose objection to the bench was based on content. They complained of the religious symbols, or the peace symbol, or simply that the bench was disagreeable to their aesthetic taste.
There are those whose objection to the bench was more visceral and xenophobic: they simply disliked the idea that a Prescott College student from New England was making an indelible mark on community space. They saw it as the unwanted influence of “outsiders” in their town.
There are those whose support for the bench was based on the principle that something lovingly assembled by so many members of the community has intrinsic value and should be maintained and preserved at all costs.
There are those whose support was more visceral and adversarial: The bench became a symbol of freedom of expression, and a pawn in the struggle of everyday citizens against the exclusive “good ole boys” network that seems to run our city government behind closed doors without accountability.
The polarization of our community over the issue has thrown the lines of division into stark relief. In the brouhaha, many, if not most, have lost sight of the accountability of the parties at fault.
Very little has been mentioned of the mistakes of both Ms. Anthony, and the Department of Parks and Recreation that brought us to this point. First, Ms. Anthony failed to submit a plan to the City of Prescott for the bench as it was constructed. This was a crucial mistake on her part, but she is not alone at fault. It seems that the rough sketch that Ms. Anthony made on the flyer for the bench was at some point deemed sufficient by the Department of Parks and Recreation, though it contained no dimensions, and didn’t represent the actual construction method or materials to be used. Ms. Anthony has related on numerous occasions that the City had waived the submission of a formal plan. By not requiring that a plan be submitted before construction began, the City of Prescott failed in its duty, not only to maintain and protect public space, but to Ms. Anthony as well. Indeed, the observance of this step of the process would likely have avoided the entire controversy.
As construction began, representatives from Parks and Recreation were repeatedly seen at the construction site giving encouragement. Former director, Debbie Horton, whose approval was ultimately required, was not among them. Her failure to oversee the project directly, especially in the absence of any formal construction plan having been submitted, is an obvious dereliction of duty. It seems she only began to pay attention when she began to receive complaints about the bench.
Councilman Steve Blair, ignoring the failure on the part of the City to take the necessary steps, went on the attack. Rather than holding his fellow city officials to account for their failures, he attacked Ms. Anthony, labeling her as dishonest (because she did not adhere to the sketch that the City mistakenly deemed sufficient for a construction plan), in a forum where she could not possibly hope to respond: Using his platform on conservative talk radio, Councilman Blair fomented a visceral and xenophobic rage, commonly held among his listeners, which was then unduly directed at Ms. Anthony. The City of Prescott Parks and Recreation Department’s failures were not mentioned by Mr. Blair, who favored sensationalism and scapegoating over reason. His failure to seek resolution, arguably the duty of every councilman, blew the entire controversy out of proportion, propelling it out of the realm of the mundane and procedural and into the realm of the political and cultural.
Proponents of the arts responded by raising the specter of Mr. Blair’s thinly veiled anti-diversity stance, as evidenced by the Miller Valley School mural controversy of some months ago. Their disdain was exacerbated by Debbie Horton’s unfortunate on-camera statements denying that free speech has any place in the public domain. While Ms. Anthony met with Mrs. Horton at the City – attempting to make a compromise – it’s fair to say that populist rage on both sides of the controversy was picking up momentum. Arts proponents demonstrated, and Mr. Blair continued to foment anger over the airwaves. In the fervor of the protests, neither side was held to account for the mistakes that led to this point. The bench became a symbol to both sides, mirroring the much discussed “Culture War:” Hippies versus Good Ole Boys.
The destruction of the bench has always seemed a foregone conclusion. You can’t fight City Hall, as they say. The fact that the disposition of this now-controversial work occurred under cover of night is a final, abject failure on the part of the City. How much better would it have been, had City Parks and Recreation officials released a contrite statement, owning their mistakes, apologizing to the people who invested their time and effort, and emotions, in the construction of the bench, and laying out the very reasonable argument that a miscommunication and failure to follow procedure has led us to this unfortunate point. Instead, this apparent act of cowardice will fuel division for years to come.
As long as we’re divided as a people, we cannot come together to accomplish effective governance by the people. The many failures of the city illustrates this in no uncertain terms. In this polarized climate, we will continually elect the “lesser of two evils.” Those elected officials are, in turn, driven to act behind closed doors and under cover of darkness to accommodate extreme agendas.
The original intention of the bench was to build community. As this unfortunate chapter comes to a close, let us reflect on how much better off the people of this community would be if we were able to put down our social and political agendas and recognize that, at least in terms of self-governance, we’re all in this together. Let us then seek candidates for public office whose priority is unification, not division.