Beach solution requires solidarity
I’ve spent the better part of this week researching the history of the city’s No. 1 reservoir — now called Bonnifield Lake — and its evolution from a city water source to recreational attraction.
The lake has generated quite a bit of controversy over the past few years. Opponents of the beach maintain the lake was never designed for recreational use and cite swimmer safety as the impetus for closing it to recreational users. Proponents say they love the beach and do not understand why, when countless other communities allow swimming on reservoirs no longer being used as water sources, Fairfield should be any different.
The July 12 drowning of Jesse Harl seems to have only intensified the conflict. Those who never believed the lake should be used for recreation say the drowning provides additional support for their assertion the lake is not safe for swimming. Fearing that in a knee-jerk response by city officials to the drowning, they may lose access to the place they characterize as “tranquil,” “communal” and “a jewel,” beach lovers have never defended the beach more staunchly. Some citizens have no opinion either way, and even more aren’t sure what to believe.
Initially, I would have fallen into one of the latter categories. Frankly, I could not have cared less what the city council decided about the fate of Bonnifield Beach. Open beach, closed beach — even as recently as a week ago, it was six of one, half dozen of the other in my book.
It’s no secret I’m not an outdoorsy person. When I want fresh air, I crank the air conditioner. I don’t do hot, I don’t like mosquitoes, I’m morally opposed to human contact with ticks, leeches and other parasites, and no matter what restrictions are or are not imposed at Bonnifield Lake, I’m not getting in it. Period.
The mere thought of squishy mud laden with goose poop residing — even temporarily — between my toes gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m not prejudiced against Bonnifield Lake in particular; I’m not going any place where having a good time is largely dependent on having a current tetanus shot. Furthermore, I would rather be tarred and feathered in Central Park than be caught traipsing about the local watering hole in my swimming suit.
I am, however, only one person. If borderline indecent exposure and swimming around with snapping turtles trips someone else’s trigger, who am I to rain on his or her reservoir? And what would we gain by closing Bonnifield Beach?
Closing it won’t bring Jesse back, no matter how much we’d all like it to. Statistically speaking, I’m not convinced it will prevent another drowning, either. There have been five drownings on city-owned reservoirs since the founding of Fairfield. Jesse’s was the first drowning on record in the No. 1 Reservoir. Three drownings have occurred at Walton Lake, the No. 3 Reservoir, and of those, two happened at a time when swimming in the lake was prohibited. The fifth drowning occurred at the No. 2 Reservoir and the man who drowned wasn’t swimming; he was fishing when his boat capsized.
Futhermore, what are we really fighting about? While it isn’t true for everyone, I have heard comments that, sadly, lead me to believe for some, this isn’t a matter of whether or not there should be swimming in the lake; it’s about territory, boundaries and drawing a line in the sand.
I wasn’t born here. My parents both grew up in Van Buren County and after they married, they moved to California where my brother and I were born. We moved to Fairfield when I was 5 and although I’m not a native in the true sense of the word, I consider myself a hometown girl. I started kindergarten here and graduated from high school here. I was so mesmerized by the city, I stayed behind to live, work and raise my own family here. Fairfield has been the only home I’ve ever really known.
Over the last several years, I’ve clung fairly tightly to a romantic view of the city I grew up in. I get nostalgic “remembering when” and there are countless things I miss about the Fairfield of my youth. That said, there are also an equal number of things I appreciate about the Fairfield I live in now — things I would also miss immensely if they were gone. I love an avocado, tomato and feta sandwich at Revelations as much as I love a greasy pepperoni, double cheese pizza at Torino’s. I love Kids’ Day, but I also love Art Walks. I was upset when Barhydt Chapel was torn down, but I appreciated deeply that the pipe organ was installed at the new civic center.
Susan Klauber loves Lake Bonnifield. Susan, whose husband Bob oversees volunteer efforts at the Bonnifield Beach, wasn’t born in Fairfield, either. She moved to Fairfield in 1983. Over the last 29 years, she’s lived here, paid taxes here, doctored here, formed friendships that have now spanned almost 30 years and called Fairfield home. Is she less native than I? Are the city amenities she holds dear less important than those I appreciate? Are her dreams for Fairfield any less visionary than my own?
Regardless of where we come from, why we ended up in Fairfield, how long we’ve been here and what our individual priorities are, we all have two things in common: our humanity and our love for the city of Fairfield. I believe, for the most part, the case for closing the lake and the case for leaving it open are each rooted in a desire to build a better, stronger community. Even if we can’t find a resolution that suits everyone, I believe if we work together in a spirit of kinship and mutual devotion to Fairfield, we could come close.
Times and storefronts in Fairfield have changed; there is no disputing that. But what I have always loved most about Fairfield has not wavered over time and that is the collective heart of its people. What I have been reminded of as I’ve talked and listened to the water superintendent, city employees, police and fire officials, committee members, councilmen and women, the mayor and beach volunteers this week is that in Fairfield, when it’s all said and done, we all care deeply about each other. Our consanguinity is far more powerful than the insignificant differences we too often allow to divide us.
I’d like to believe that will still ring true regardless of what happens at the lake.
Staci Ann Wilson Wright teaches special education at the Fairfield High School; she is a Ledger summer staff writer.