Sunday, August 12, 2007

Local politics

I live in a run-down but reviving urban neighborhood, just down the block from an elementary school yard. At night, teenagers use the school yard for . . . well, you name it: at least drinking, drugs, and gambling, maybe sex, reportedly fighting. A meeting was recently held, with school officials, police, city government people, and neighbors, to discuss a proposal to refurbish the school yard. The proposal recommended a big iron fence, nice football and baseball fields, and a little water park for little kids. I didn't like the proposal. What follows is a letter I sent to my "Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner": the lowest level, most local government official.


Thanks for clarifying the purpose of the next meeting on the school-yard. That makes good sense. You said I should send to you, asap, any "alternate ideas" for the rehabilitation. I do have quite a few thoughts, so here goes.

Matthew's presentation was really impressive and very helpful for showing the progress of the neighborhood. But when it came to rationale for his specific proposal, I think there was just one sentence, on the last page: "Almost without exception," he wrote, "urban areas and property [are] only respected if [they are] maintained and secured." I would take issue with two parts of this statement, and thus suggest an alternate course.

First, he says that areas are only respected if they are "secured," and thus suggests a "tasteful/beautiful wrought-iron fence." I respect the desire to keep bad guys out, but I think his methodology is incorrect. As [Police] Commander Groomes said, you don't make a place safe by keeping bad guys out; you make it safe by bringing good people in. If you look at Capitol Hill [the very nice neighborhood to the South of us], the most beloved, respected places are safe not because of fences but because of people: Lincoln Park, Stanton Park, Eastern Market. These places are cornerstones of the community because they invite people in. Our school yard can be the same.

I respect the need for a fence around the school yard when children are present, so they don't get away. But I think the first thing that needs to be done is to *open* the fence when the children are not present. Right now, the only way onto those grounds is through a parking lot on the alley; I lived on the same block as that parking lot for almost two months before even realizing I *could* go onto the school grounds. What the fence presently communicates is that neighbors are not welcome -- only criminals, who enter illegally, are welcome. If nothing else, the gate at the corner of K and 6th should be open as much as the school will allow, so that neighbors know they can be there. I think it would be better to install bigger, open gates on both 6th and K. The only way to keep that place safe is by bringing good people in.

Along with opening the doors, of course, we need to have things to draw people. I would recommend moving the playground equipment out of the back corner and into the front corner, right out on 6th and K. This would serve two purposes. First, it would communicate to the community that we are welcome to be there -- I don't want to walk my kids down an alley to a playground that seems intentionally set where we can't get to it, and I suspect other parents feel the same way. Second, it would take away the hide-out criminals now have. They hang out on the playground equipment because it is presently set up as a den: a place to sit where no one can see them. Put the playground out on the corner (preferably with a police camera) and they no longer have anywhere to go.

Another way to draw people in is by naming the school yard a dog park. I know that sounds dirty -- but in Stanton Park and other dog parks, people are quite responsible about cleaning up after their pets; and anyway, it's a lot nicer for the custodian to clean up the occasional dog poop than the trash left there every night by criminals. If possible, we might even invite a coffee vendor (Sidamo?) to set up a stand on Saturday mornings, or something to get people onto those grounds. We certainly should put in a big trash bin, so that people who want to use that space don't have to throw their garbage on the ground. Benches would be nice, too. And some vines on the fences would look an awful lot nicer. We should also ask the deaf community how we could make them feel welcome.

(Full disclosure: I do *not* have a dog, and do not particularly like dogs -- but living near Stanton Park for three years, I saw what a positive community experience it was to have people out every morning and night just chit-chatting. A dog park becomes a magnet for community, even for those who don't like dogs.)

Along with security, Matthew's other rationale for his project is that a space must be "maintained." I think this points to a danger in his plan: he tells us the cost to *set up* fields and swimming pools, but he doesn't mention the upkeep costs. Almost all the cost for football, baseball, and soccer fields -- and certainly for a water park -- is in keeping the grass and dirt nice, keeping the lines painted, keeping the water coming. That's a lot of maintenance.

But what good would it do? I think what Matthew was trying to get at is that people -- including criminals -- have more respect for a space that is cared for. But maintaining fields that the community can't use is a pretty ambiguous kind of care. I think the bigger concern is not upkeep -- fancy football fields and such -- but community use. In my opinion, a football field would not get a lot of use. The kind of games that people in the community play are pick-up games that need a field, to be sure, but not a professionally maintained one. Go down and watch at Lincoln Park sometime: people play baseball, football, soccer, and frisbee not because there are fancy fields but because there are spaces where they feel welcome. I think painted lines and well-maintained fields would, ironically, *discourage* community use. They would only be valuable for intramural sports -- teams from outside the neighborhood. So keep open plenty of field for sports -- but don't waste money painting lines that will scare people away. (Incidentally, what do you think elementary school kids are going to do on a big "official" football field? Not much.) The care we need is basic maintenance and lots of community involvement.

We need the school's support on all this, of course. Maybe the school will decide that they don't want the community to use their fields -- but I would warn them that where good people are missing, bad people will fill in, and I suspect they'd agree. With apologies to Sheila, I'd say that family reunions may be loud ("like King's Dominion!") but nobody wants to sell drugs or do any of the other rotten things kids are doing out there if there's a family reunion right next to them. Communities have more power to force out criminals than we realize -- just ask Commander Groomes.

Finally, let me again say that I think we need to attend to the streets outside the school yard. I know that the present project is refurbishing the school grounds -- and, as I've just detailed, I think that's very important and can do a lot of good. But let's make sure that the school, the city, the police, and the neighborhood get together again sometime to discuss things like shattered glass and trash covering the sidewalk directly outside the school yard; drug dealers running a market just outside the school fence; and a store right across the street that sells nothing but malt liquor. These are school issues, not just police issues, and the solutions to these things, in my opinion, are not police solutions but community ones. We can do better, both for our neighborhood and for our school.

Thank you for your patience and consideration. I'd be happy to write a more condensed presentation and present it at the next meeting, if you would be interested.