Parks: Heartbeat & Hope for the Future

Mountain Lake Park“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.

The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)

On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park.Mountain Lake 9.9.18 The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.

Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.

Birds in treesMacauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.

Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.

Hallelujah.

(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)

 

 

 

A Random Act of Kindness

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” the victim recalls. The mugger was a teenager, the victim a 31-year-old social worker named Julio Diaz. As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

So goes a story that my daughter Sandy somehow discovered and posted on her Facebook page recently. It was on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in May, 2008.

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn. He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

So Diaz gave him his wallet and his warm coat, invited him to dinner, and… well, you’ll have to read the story for yourself.

Sandy’s post evoked a long list of responses. Her husband, a hard-nosed newsguy T/S contributor who will remain nameless here, had the audacity to wonder aloud if the story might have been invented. (His wife and son threw something at him.)

I dug up the story, but surely didn’t ask NPR if it had been fact-checked. I mean, if you can’t believe NPR, who can you believe? Plus, with the relentlessness of today’s bad news, is a little good news welcome, or what?

Without giving it all away, we can report that the piece concludes,

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

This space argues that we can use all the news we can get about people treating people right. If you Google Julio Diaz, may he live long and prosper, you discover multiple pages of people who were inspired by, or even skeptical of, that story when it first appeared. But unless it’s wayyy down the scroll, no one has discredited it. If you should do so, by some cruel twist of historical revisionism, please don’t tell Sandy or me.

A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR.

New killer: high tech in the front seat

How many people will this latest gadget kill?

Some cool dude can decide between the Boeuf Bourguignonne or the Coq au Vin en route to the restaurant – what difference should running over a pedestrian or two make? Or rear-ending a smaller car with a new baby in the back seat? Maybe he’ll smack into another cool dude flipping through music albums and they can take each other off the map. But it seldom works that way; usually the dead include innocent people who were doing nothing stupid at all.

That, clearly, should be where the line is drawn: when our obsession with high tech and cool toys means we will be killing other folks. But high tech cool toys make a lot of money.

To the dismay of safety advocates already worried about driver distraction, automakers and high-tech companies have found a new place to put sophisticated Internet-connected computers: the front seat.

Technology giants like Intel and Google are turning their attention from the desktop to the dashboard, hoping to bring the power of the PC to the car. They see vast opportunity for profit in working with automakers to create the next generation of irresistible devices.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the neon-drenched annual trade show here (New York City), these companies are demonstrating the breadth of their ambitions, like 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages.

The first wave of these “infotainment systems,” as the tech and car industries call them, will hit the market this year. While built-in navigation features were once costly options, the new systems are likely to be standard equipment in a wide range of cars before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.

It really is beside the point to blame Intel and Google. Drunk drivers kill people and nobody blames Old Crow. Or, as the NRA folks like to say, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” People, lacking the common sense to admit that hurtling around in a few tons of steel requires paying attention while you hurtle, are going to kill people with these new toys.

Safety advocates say the companies behind these technologies are tone-deaf to mounting research showing the risks of distracted driving — and to a growing national debate about the use of mobile devices in cars and how to avoid the thousands of wrecks and injuries this distraction causes each year.

“This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the new efforts to marry cars and computers. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.”

One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.

A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: “Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

Oh, sure. As if someone with the arrogance to believe he or she can drive a car while drinking a latte, negotiating a business deal and reserving tickets to the ballgame is going to notice a little thing like a kid on a wobbly bike just ahead.

The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority. They note that they are building in or working on technology like voice commands and screens that can simultaneously show a map to the driver and a movie to a front-seat passenger, as in the new Jaguar XJ.

“We are trying to make that driving experience one that is very engaging,” said Jim Buczkowski, the director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford. “We also want to make sure it is safer and safer. It is part of what our DNA will be going forward.”

Ford’s new MyFord system lets the driver adjust temperature settings or call a friend while the car is in motion, while its built-in Web browser works only when the car is parked. Audi says it will similarly restrict access to complex and potentially distracting functions. But in general, drivers will bear much of the responsibility for limiting their use of these devices.

Drivers are proving every day that they would rather multi-task than pay attention to their driving. Lives are lost every hour to distracted drivers. More lives will be lost to people engaging in Mr. Buczkowski’s driving experience because driving without paying attention is not part of our DNA.

There is a family joke around our house about my husband, who doesn’t eat, drink or talk on cell phones while riding and has certainly never drunk anything or phoned anybody himself while driving, suggesting that “a car is something intended to get you from point A to point B.”

Maybe we should quit laughing.

Driven to Distraction – Despite Risks, Carmakers Integrate the Web With the Dash – Series – NYTimes.com.

CIA casualties highlight endless wars

While we were watching bejeweled balls drop in Times Square, or fireworks over San Francisco Bay, pyrotechnics of a different sort were going on as usual around the globe, some of them more or less our fault — because people don’t like us or our government policies or our religious persuasions — some of them happening in our name. The news-making American casualties were not military personnel this time, but civilians in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The report of this attack sums up where we are, in the last few words of the first paragraph: America’s far-flung wars.

The deaths of seven Central Intelligence Agency operatives at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan are a pointed example of the civilian spy agency’s transformation in recent years into a paramilitary organization at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.

Is it possible we are fighting too many wars, too far-flung?

If you Google around a while, you can discover (for instance, on a college librarian’s eponymous and aptly named site, topsy.org) that many of the lists of exactly where and with whom we are fighting battles have been removed — but that there are a lot of them out there. We have “overseas operating sites,” which our thankfully now-former president sought to have “optimally positioned to respond to potential 21st century military threats” all over the globe.

PBS NewsHour on New Year’s Day featured one segment in which Georgetown University professor Christine Fair attempted to articulate the various factors involved in current impossible wars going on in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. The Pakistan Taliban, she explained, are actually “a network of networks;” the insurgents include Afghan soldiers, or perhaps non-soldiers dressed in some of the uniforms acquired by stealing a truckload of them, which happened not long ago. PBS’ Ray Suarez then asked if there were any way of stopping this chaos. “I don’t think so,” was the answer.

Hello? Could we think about our foreign policy a while?

Even without easily accessible lists (it is somewhat comforting to know that amateurs can’t Google up strategic maps of these overseas operating sites,) everybody knows we have personnel, uniformed and otherwise scattered around from Germany to South Korea to Thailand to Honduras to wherever. We don’t know how many of them are fighting little wildfire battles, either in person or through U.S.-trained surrogates. In the recent C.I.A. tragedy, the survivors can be forgiven for anger and grief, but some of the response is still unsettling:

There was an air of defiance among intelligence officials on the day after the attack, and some spoke of their fallen comrades using military language.

“There is no pullout,” the American intelligence official said. “There is no withdrawal or anything like that planned.”

Is anybody, anywhere, considering the fact that we can’t keep fighting everybody everywhere, forever? The pundits (reinforced by Defense Department spokespeople) like to say that if we were to pull out — of Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, pick your piece of the globe where we’re actively or just-behind-the-lines at war — there would be chaos. But there’s already chaos.

What if we started taking a few of those trillions currently funding endless wars and diverting them into building schools, hospitals, community centers, friends? After the chaos, could we then emerge with more friends and fewer aspiring-martyr enemies?

Maybe not. But it would be nice, just once, in all the interminable debates about terrorists and security and rooting out the bad guys, to hear someone suggest changing course, waging peace. For now, we seem mired in countless un-winnable wars. It would be heartening to think we could get off the Through the Looking Glass course outlined by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 and quoted by columnist David Sirota today:

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknowns unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

We know how many wars we are fighting. We know we’re not winning many of them. We know that peace on earth isn’t getting any closer these days.

C.I.A. Takes On Bigger and Riskier Role on Front Lines – NYTimes.com.