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 Walk in the Park – for everyone

Urban park

For most of America’s urban poor, life is hardly a walk in the park. But the Trust for Public Land is out to change that. Every urban citizen, rich or poor, should be able to access a park, playground or natural area in a 10-minute walk, TPL maintains. It may seem just a dream in many cities, but their Parks for People program is making that dream come true.

San Francisco’s Boeddeker Park in the city’s Tenderloin district – one of the few remaining San Francisco communities not yet infiltrated by millionaires – illustrates the dream fulfillment. The Tenderloin is a 31-block area in the heart of the city, much of it now designated Historic Landmark and thus protected from the ubiquitous new luxury condominiums popping up elsewhere. The area recently got its own museum. Long a haven for immigrants and laborers, today it is home to many of the city’s poorest citizens, including large numbers of children who have never seen the surrounding ocean, mountains and bay that accentuate San Francisco’s extraordinary beauty.

A tiny green spot of just under one acre was designated a city park in 1985 and named for a beloved local pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker. But drug dealers and unsavory characters quickly made it of little use to children. (This writer often walked by en route to one place or another, and habitually sped up when passing the park.)

Boeddeker Park opening
Boeddeker Park Opening

Enter the Trust for Public Land. With TPL working alongside concerned members of the Tenderloin community and a group of dedicated public and private donors, Boeddeker Park was transformed into a haven and refuge, alive with basketball-playing, gym-climbing children and now off-limits to bad guys.

At a recent TPL event for supporters (among whom this writer is happy to be counted,) several current projects of the organization were described. President and CEO Will Rogers spoke of progress made and plans underway. Vice President and Director of Land Protection Brenda Schick outlined some of the land conservation efforts that are leading to preservation of open spaces across the country. (Schick, an avid horsewoman, managed to get her equine friends into many of the stunning images of American countryside in her slide presentation.)

And Jennifer Isacoff, Parks for People Bay Area Program Director, talked of making it possible for every urban American – even those for whom life is not a walk in the park – to walk TO a park within 10 minutes. A reasonable goal:

Making life a little better, one park at a time.

 

Walk, Text, Crash: the Orwellian future

Park.ukThe man coming toward me in the park, maybe 500 yards up the path, was walking a large, mixed-breed black-and-white dog. He (the man, that is) was bearded and graying, nattily dressed in black pants, a red plaid sports shirt and gray sweater.

Just ahead of me, walking in the same direction as I, was a younger man dressed in sweat pants and jacket and holding the end of a leash attached to a tan Labrador retriever.

Both men were totally absorbed in texting.

It was a slow-motion episode exquisitely orchestrated for a YouTube video, if only I had been quick enough with my cellphone; as it was, I could only watch, fascinated and wordless. They collided at full speed, one cellphone clattering onto the asphalt and one leash dropped. But there were no apparent casualties. The dogs, at least, had sense enough to have steered themselves safely onto the grass where they were sniffing each other with unconcerned abandon. I smiled politely and kept going.

The episode underlined the hazards of texting while walking, which can surely be as dangerous as texting while doing almost anything else. Almost: there are no available statistics on the adverse effects of texting while having sex, which seems popular in some demographics.

Not long ago, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton wrote a piece in which he shared a New Year’s resolution to quit texting while walking.

“The realization that I may have a problem (along with a lot of other people),” Bilton wrote, “hit me smack in the face, literally, a few weeks ago when I was strolling through Kennedy International Airport, avoiding obstacles with my peripheral vision as I clambered out a text message. Without any warning (as I couldn’t actually see), I was involved in a head-on collision with another man who was also texting while walking.”

Most walking-zombie texters do survive, as Bilton did, with only bruised egos or minimal damage, but that’s not always the case. An Ohio State University study links “distracted walking” to the dramatic increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Equally dismal, for the future of the planet, is how texting while walking may alter human interaction, whether texters live or die with their devices. One report, an interview with Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo, suggests an Orwellian solution to texting/walking hazards: a cellphone app that shows the landscape ahead, so that texters can text interminably, and see where they’re going without ever looking up.

Is there life beyond a 2 ½ x 5 inch screen?

A love affair with a park

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(This article first appeared on Huffington Post)

Love the earth? Love the park.

A world without parks would be, well, like a life without sunshine. Wherever you live on this crowded planet, I hope you have a favorite, nearby park.

My earliest favorite was Nashville’s Percy Warner Park, where Sunday afternoon picnics were highlights of this Depression kid’s childhood. Today The Warner Parks include several thousand acres of trails, athletic fields, overlooks and golf courses – the largest municipally administered parks in Tennessee – but to my four-year-old mind an afternoon at “persywannerpark” was a time of bliss.

So to see the four-year-olds who regularly romp around San Francisco’s little urban jewel, Mountain Lake Park, is nostalgic joy. Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio National Park, which you and I, citizens all, have owned since the Sixth Army moved out.

For this writer, dozens of Significant Others preceded my fully committed love affair with Mountain Lake Park: Hanover (VA) Courthouse, Bryan Park in Richmond, VA, Atlanta’s Chastain and Piedmont parks, and a long list of occasional others. But with Mountain Lake and me, it’s a forever thing. For better or for worse. Visiting grandchildren loved the playground, serenity rises from the lake and the Parcourse fitness trail beats any expensive gym or meditative yoga class all to heck.

This is why there was no question about it when the pretty, young Presidio Trust woman asked. I took The Pledge.

Behind the drive to get park people to take The Pledge is a story probably like the story of your own favorite: park abuse. Despite their extraordinary kindness and generosity – play space, clean air, quiet shade, assorted nourishments to our souls – parks tend not to receive goodness in kind. More frequently what they get includes cigarette butts, discarded hamburger wrappers and an overabundance of well-fed pigeons. In Mountain Lake’s case, abuse over the centuries also included a toxic accumulation of runoff from Highway #101 which unfortunately runs along one border of the lake. But thanks to our tax dollars and the good work of the Presidio Trust, the lake has been undergoing a multi-year restoration. It may not get all the way back to the pristine waters from which the Spaniards, and countless Native Americans before them, happily drank, but every day it gets better. Fascinating to watch.

If you love a park, you may want to generate a pledge campaign of your own. Small children were lining up at Mountain Lake for instructions and bumper stickers (“Love Mountain Lake”) – and earnestly taking The Pledge. Which reads:

I pledge:

To protect the wild animals that live at Mountain Lake by allowing them to find their own natural foods.
Not to abandon unwanted pets or plants at Mountain Lake or other park sites.

To share what I’ve learned about how to keep Mountain Lake healthy, and encourage others to take this pledge.

Earth Day might have slipped by recently, but it’s never too late to Love Your Park.

 

The face of homelessness

My friend Kevin told me this afternoon that he will be going to Bakersfield to stay. St. Vincent de Paul, he says, bought him a bus ticket for Sunday. I will be seriously sad to see him go.

Kevin lives somewhere, he’s never explained and I don’t press, in the rich-man/poor-man city of San Francisco. Wherever he spends his nights, he spends his days, mostly, on a bench in Mountain Lake Park near my home, watching the seagulls and ducks on the water, the pigeons on the grass, children on the swings. The par course which functions as my personal gym loops around the park, leading me past Kevin’s bench just after the hop-kicks and before the newly replaced (thanks, Park & Rec!) push-up bars. Kevin finds my exercises highly amusing.

Kevin has skin like polished coal, a bushy Afro usually tucked under a leather cap that would work well in Moscow, and a grin that displays a wide row of crooked, gap-filled bottom teeth. He has few. if any, top teeth. His wardrobe, which also includes an outsized leather jacket and very heavy boots, seldom changes, nor does his mood, which is sunny with occasional fog.

Many months ago I introduced myself, mid-workout. Kevin has never asked for a handout, but I took to offering him a dollar for a cup of coffee and it’s never been refused. Once recently, while he was dozing in the sunshine by the playground, I stuck a folded dollar bill into the same pocket occupied by his large, square hand, hoping it wouldn’t fall out and disappear. The next day he confirmed, with a huge guffaw, that it had been found. “And I knowed it was you come around!!” he said, pleasing me immensely.

Sometimes, when the weather has been cold and rainy or the fog too oppressive I do not see Kevin for a while. “I been going to the liberry,” he tells me later, a testament probably more to the warmth of the nearby building and its inhabitants than to our educational system — but with Kevin you never know.

When I am not constrained by time and the cares of the world I join Kevin on his bench. We talk about the water birds, the golfers far across the small lake, or the construction going on farther across and to the west, where the Presidio Trust is spending your tax money to convert the old Veteran’s Administration Hospital into apartments which will have drop dead gorgeous views. Kevin, on my recommendation, once walked up there to see what it is like. That was about the time when, on a beautiful, balmy San Francisco day I remarked to him that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. He said, “I be lucky too.” That is a comment to take to the bank.

Because he is of indeterminate age and mental agility, I would worry about Kevin going off to the far country of Bakersfield. But he says he has family there, is looking forward to the bus ride and thinks it will be swell. I just hope they have a park with birds and children to entertain him, and perhaps an occasional jogger to join him on the bench.

Still, I will feel his absence. Never once has Kevin failed to say, as I pass on to the push-up bars, “Have a guht one!” Coming from behind an unfathomable grin, from a man presumably alone on the mean streets of urban America, who considers himself lucky, that is a blessing one doesn’t always get in the middle of a fitness course. And a blessing one can always use.