Fountain Foolishness?

By Jim McCloskey

Where do you stand when it comes to people using off-limits public fountains to beat the heat?

With the arrival of the dog days of summer, I’ve spotted a generous selection of news items about people getting in trouble (or at least being chased away) when they’ve sought cool comfort in the waters of urban fountains – and I have to say I can’t blame them, given the number of times the thought of taking such a dip has crossed my mind through the years.  When it gets hot in Los Angeles or Rome or Washington, D.C., or even Portland, Ore., there are relatively few places to go to catch a convenient break.

I call this willingness to bend the rules “Anita Ekberg Association Disorder” after her star turn in the classic Italian film, La Dolce Vita.  I like to think that Ms. Ekberg’s brief but spectacular romp in the waters of the Trevi Fountain in Rome may in fact be responsible for a general sense of lawlessness connected to fountain use.

Of course I know the arguments against entering these watershapes.  First, many of them are untreated and therefore not suitable for human immersion or ingestion.  (In other words, anyone who gets intimate with the water faces the possibility of contracting a waterborne illness.)  Second, these watershapes are seldom supervised by anyone other than local police who just happen to show up – no lifeguards to help anyone who might get in trouble.  Valid reasons, both of them.

And when you add in the possibility of high-volume incursions in brief periods of intense heat, the fountains’ water balance takes something of a body blow that may require considerable time, effort and expense to address.  Then there’s the fact that fountain equipment (lights and nozzles, for example) is often exposed just under the waterline and is therefore subject to damage by clumsy, thoughtless or malicious bathers – often a consequence, and a costly one to address.

Finally, there are occasionally issues of the bathers’ apparent lack of respect for a fountain’s history or intended purpose.  Veterans groups, for example, see those who dip into the large pool at the heart of the World War II memorial on the Capitol Mall in Washington as rude and disrespectful, and I suspect that similar objections have been voiced about unauthorized use of any number of memorial fountains around the world.  (Recent reports from Rome, for example, cite the disrespect for antiquities put on display by relief-seeking tourists.)

The fact of the matter, however, is that interaction with the water is actually encouraged in many public fountains, most obviously where the displays feature deck jets and choreographic controls that invite active engagement with the water.  How is the average citizen to draw the line?  Ignorance of the law (or of the safety of an activity) is no excuse, but does this situation create a weird gray area that seems to “allow” people to ignore cautionary or restrictive signage and get wet?

This all reminds me of a video I first saw many years ago called “Take Fountain,” named after Bette Davis’s famous quip in answer to a question about the best way to get into Hollywood.  Literally true about a wonderful, local-knowledge-only street leading into the heart of Tinseltown, her line inspired the “star” of the video to do all sorts of questionable things to play up to the film’s title.

With at least two of the fountains seen in the video (click here), my own attempts at taking interesting close-ups of them led to me being chased away – once when I tried to get an unusual close angle on Ricardo Legorreta’s aqueduct in Pershing Square, another time when I stepped up onto the basin wall at the Mulholland Fountain near Griffith Park.  I wasn’t interested in getting wet, mind you, but I like the “Take Fountain” video all the more because I know there was a certain level of petty criminality involved in its production.

Maybe that’s what this is all about:  The crime of getting wet in restricted waters does seem, in my book, truly petty compared to the relief being sought by the overheated masses who visit these places.  As I’ve often written, humans are naturally inclined to interact with water – a tendency every professional watershaper counts on to make a living.

So I generally come down on the side of the no-harm-done-except-maybe-to-ourselves lawbreakers in these instances.  How about you?


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