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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Civic Life for a Wino Park

There was a Halloween party for children at Whalen Park in the Norwood neighborhood in The Bronx on Saturday.  More than a hundred kids attended with their parents.  They played games.  They made crafts. They danced to music played by a DJ. They sat and listened when the children's librarian from the Mosholu Branch Library next door came outside to read stories. Dozens of older adults gathered along the sidewalk right outside the park, leaning on the low fence to watch the spectacle inside and generally socializing with one another.

Whalen Park has suffered from a reputation as a place where the homeless and drunks congregate.  Its image was perhaps worse than the actual conditions ever were, and it has improved considerably over the years. Nevertheless, use of the park often remains low, and, occasionally, somebody sleeping on one of the benches will still make neighborhood residents feel uncomfortable being there.

There has been an ongoing debate within the local neighborhoods about the future of Whalen Park. There are a few local individuals who share the view of senior officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation that the park should be converted to a playground and surrounded with a taller fence. The idea of converting the park is intended to force out the "undesirables."  In New York City, adults are legally prohibited from entering a playground unless they are accompanying a child. This perspective seems to belong primarily to people who have only fleeting glimpses of the park, many of them local library patrons from an adjacent neighborhood.

By and large, the community members who actually use the park or who live closest to it do not favor replacing it with a children's playground. There is general agreement that the park could use an upgrade and a shared hope that some design changes will help bring more activity, but there is a real resistance to forcing out the group of seniors who rely on this park as their regular outlet for socialization or as a quiet place to sit and read outside. 

This is not a typical instance of competing interests from different user groups, either. Many parents of small children agree that Whalen Park should be kept as a general park, oriented more toward passive recreation. There are plenty of other playgrounds in the area already. There are four other playgrounds only a few minutes' walk away, and  a few more with a moderately longer walk. Most of the local park advocates would rather direct the City's resources into repairing, maintaining, and improving the existing playgrounds, rather than adding a new one. 

Many of the community leaders who organized the Halloween party have been involved with the discussions about the future of Whalen Park.  The event was produced by a collaboration of community organizations and neighborhood volunteers, with modest yet meaningful support from the business community and the Department of Parks and Recreation. Most of the leaders were parents of young children; when they saw a need and an opportunity to do something for the neighborhood's children they rolled up their sleeves and worked together to make it happen. At the same time, several of them also saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of Whalen Park itself.

Not only was the event a success, it did reveal some interesting aspects of the park. The organizers had made an effort to advertise the event with fliers up around the neighborhood and posting it on Facebook and some relevant listserves. In this dense, urban neighborhood, however, such notices are often lost in the noise. Many of the parents who brought their children found out about the Halloween party because somebody was simply walking by the park while the volunteers were setting up, and it spread by word-of-mouth. Unlike most of the other parks in the neighborhood, which sit back away from active street life, Whalen Park is laid out along major walking routes between the neighborhood shopping street and houses and apartments, and the subway station entrance is located right on the corner of the park. Activities in Whalen Park have a unique opportunity to draw in the neighborhood because the neighbors are already walking by and can simply stop in or dash home and come right back.

Another lesson was the usefulness of the open areas of hexagonal pavers. They provided a great deal of flexibility to host this type of activity. Redesigning the park with playground equipment would preclude these events in the future, and breaking the spaces up with landscaping that doesn't anticipate larger activities would create issues as well.

Everybody was very impressed and pleased with the storytelling by the library staff. There are hopes that the success of that activity will lead to future events and an ongoing partnership with the New York Public Library in the park.

Obviously, discussions about the future of this park will continue. Skeptics may continue to believe that taller fences and regulations prohibiting adults will keep "undesirable" people away. Hopefully, a more optimistic and organized spirit of community will create a more promising alternative, where the park is open to everybody as a place that fosters so much casual daily use and acts as a recurring location for community events. A more active and well-loved park would be less attractive for anti-social behavior, would feel more secure in those instances when a homeless person may choose to rest there.  Most significantly, its reputation would come to be defined by its many positive attributes, rather than whatever traces of social problems occasionally pass its way.

The debate and competing views about the future of this park, like any other public space, will continue indefinitely. Yet the actions of the community participants who do more than talk and demonstrate their vision through real community-building events make this park and the overall community a better place, regardless of the actual design of any eventual renovation.

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