By Zoe Lawton
I attended an Industry neighborhood meeting, which I learned about through Facebook. It was held in a small hall decorated by children’s drawings. There was a foldout table in front, and about 10 chairs lined in rows. Everyone wore masks to this meetings, and it was refreshing to see. I had to take my temperature, and sign in to the meeting for tracking. The meeting was brief, but I spoke during the “Other Business” portion. I spoke about the project we were doing, and afterwards everyone came up to me and wondered if their story could be told. Everyone was grateful that someone was willing to be there and just listen. I appreciated every single one of their kind words about Heekin. I do want to highlight a story about representation within Heekin park. Kent Blair and I were speaking about his recommendations for Heekin Park. He grew up only four blocks away from the park, and talked about the old tournaments that were held. He would like to bring back the horseshoe and basketball tournaments, and have the cabin rental price lowered. Then he began to speak about his father, John Blair.
John Blair was one of the first paid African-American firemen hired by Muncie. He worked in his position from April 1st 1958 to April 1st 1978. John Blair was also a carpenter, and worked on many homes within the Muncie community. Kent Blair wanted his father to be known on the Walk of Fame in Heekin Park. This is about representation within the parks, and how that is manifested within the Muncie community parks.
I want to discuss a similar situation to Heekin to help better understand parks as mirrors to the community. Laura Lawson, an assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana, writes about East St. Louis’ parks. I am using East St. Louis as a comparison to show not only is Muncie struggling, but parks all over the nation. East St. Louis has suffered like Muncie with deindustrialization, depopulation, and municipal budget problems. Parks have reduced staffing, service closures, and deferred maintenance. Lawson states this can lead too under utilization, vandalism, and crime. Again, like Muncie, this area used to be an industrial city with a diverse population, but also segregation policies that separated white and black neighborhoods. Muncie and East St. Louis park represent social institutions that deserve to be restored into useful and safe spaces (Lawson 2007). In communities like Muncie, the municipal leaders should be in charge and responsible for ensuring the parks are maintained. Parks Board members and the Parks Superintendent are political appoints by the mayor. So each time there is a new mayor, there could be a new superintendent. So, historically, there has been no incentive to create long lasting projects. If your job as the parks director could be stripped with the new mayor, why bother? One of the effects of the politicization of the parks in Heekin is seen in the shifting of responsibility of the parks from the Parks Board and staff to neighborhoods and neighborhood associations, which is part of a longer and larger history of the privatization of public space.
Historical studies of American parks are guided by an agenda with the aim of improving the emotional, moral, and physical health of the public (Lawson 2007). Recreation was supposed to bring together all groups and classes of people. Landscape architect Henry Hubbard wanted playgrounds to overcome prejudices (Lawson 2007). Most literature about parks encourage social interaction, but remained quiet on silent issues of equity and access by people of color (Lawson 2007). Lawson states that in the past African American recreation was provided through general public facilities, and scheduling that separated groups according to race and age. Then in 1962, the first national study of the American recreation found that minority groups used recreational opportunities less than white populations. This report failed to note, that through urban renewal and construction many African American neighborhoods were demolished (Lawson 2007. Parks still today play a political role in facilitating aesthetic order. It is agreed upon that we should have parks, similar to the way we should have schools. Yet, access to parks is not universal. Heekin park is located in an area where most people have to drive to access the park. The sidewalks are damaged, and often difficult to travel. There is limited trails in the park, and the space is not accessible to those that have disabilities. Upkeep to Heekin park is heavily constrained by municipal fiscal limitations and priorities. Neglect accumulates, and the public begins to fear that parks are dangerous place. This can be seen in Heekin park by two women whom I interviewed. They walked the paths and noticed the grass was tall, and they began to fear that someone would jump out at them. They stopped using Heekin, even though they lived near the park. After the grass was cut, they returned. Revitalized parks help to reduce crime, increase property values, and encourage community investment (Lawson 2007). However, the idea of self-help is to empower communities, but the burden of improvement is often put on the people with the least power. The community and Ball State University students are often expected to address problems of disinvestment. Public officials of the Muncie Parks and Recreation Board may ask community members to clean up trash, a worthwhile request, but this is not tangible permanent aid. We cannot ask communities to control parks, because parks are public entities. It is the municipal government that should be in control of these public commons providing aid.
Jacob, J. (1961). The uses of neighborhood parks. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (pp. 89-111). Vintage Books.
Lawson, L. (2007). Parks as Mirrors of Community: Design Discourse and Community Hopes for Parks in East St. Louis. Landscape Journal, 26(1), 116–133. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43323758
Low, S. M., Taplin, D., & Scheld, S. (2005). Rethinking urban parks: Public space & cultural diversity. Austin: University of Texas Press.