By Douglas Weinert
The evening of October 20, 2020 Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour introduced to the Muncie Parks Board during one of its meetings a development proposal that would potentially have great ramifications. The plan was to consolidate the facilities of the local chapter of the YMCA of Muncie and to shift its location within the center of the city to somewhere else (Save Tuhey). The desired location would remain in the center part of the city, at a place a bit too close for comfort for the residents of Riverside-Normal City community: Tuhey Park. It was not until a month later, on November 23rd that the YMCA officially declared its intentions with the park, which included the construction of not only a new facility for private recreational activities, but also a parking lot for potential visitors, citing the underuse of Tuhey Park by neighborhood and city residents as a drawing factor in its decision to build there. A great majority of the public park’s 8.43 acres would be filled with this development.
This would prove to be controversial to the residents of Muncie. Letters and emails both in support and in opposition to the planned development flooded into the inbox of then City Council member Jeff Robinson. A campaign against this plan was launched soon after this announcement. This campaign, named “Save Tuhey,” spearheaded by the residents of Riverside-Normal City, situated right next to the park that was slated to be developed upon, decried this plan for the stated reasons of the privatization of public, tax-funded land, the loss of natural landscape within the city, and the potential dangers of development within the area concerning children and streets, among many others. As the website dedicated to the protection of Tuhey Park as it currently stands clearly states, “We want a park, not a YMCA building and a parking lot.” (Save Tuhey). It would appear that there is a disconnect between the private sector’s interests and those of the constituents of the nearby neighborhood and users of the park. What is wanted by the community was and is not private recreational facilities, but a place that can be shared not just by the residents of Riverside Normal-City, but by residents of Muncie as well.
Tuhey Park lies at the geographic heart of Muncie itself, sandwiched between the neighborhoods of Riverside-Normal City and Old West End and Downtown, both on opposite sides of the White River, accessible by the White River Parkway just nearby, quite possibly Muncie’s most significant natural feature beyond its park greenspace. It serves as an intersection between Wheeling Avenue and White River Blvd, busy streets often filled with passersby and serenaded by the honks of passing cars, trucks, and heavy machinery, serving to bring one into the center of the city and into the dense neighborhoods nearby. In a sense, this also forms a crossroads for those traveling through Muncie. Not half a kilometer – about a five- to ten-minute walk – from Tuhey can one access the neighborhoods that surround it, ones that serve to define, in part, how the space left open for them to use is used and appreciated.
The Riverside-Normal City neighborhood is just northwest of Tuhey, bordered by the sweeping arms of Wheeling Avenue to the south, White River Blvd to the west, and McKinley Avenue to the east. It is the size of a small town within itself, sporting a population of 4,956 people as of 2018 (“Household Income in Riverside…”), making it the third largest neighborhood in Muncie. Up to ninety percent of these nearly five thousand people identify as white, with five percent Black and two percent Hispanic. Fifty-two percent are male (“Demographics”). Though the differences and diversity in ages – from small children, to students, to those at retirement age – among the many residents in this neighborhood are rather unique for Muncie (Harper 2016), the largest portion of this population is within their early to mid-20s, making them around the age of college students who, of course, attend the nearby Ball State University. These students often may not have fulltime jobs, or professional class employment, which, in part, creates a community in which the average household is impoverished, with up to forty-seven percent of the population earning less than $15,000 a year. It has been suggested by some respondents that whatever apparent lack of use of Tuhey Park by college students there may be might result from a lack of awareness of the park, and that hosting specific events, such as live musical performances, may draw crowds into Tuhey, adults and students alike. Although, if there is a disuse in Tuhey to be found, as suggested by the YMCA project planners, the economic status of residents of that age may be one of the factors contributing to that disuse. Not only are adolescents and young adults – in this case, college students without children of their own – more likely not to use the parks in their neighborhoods (Loukaitou-Sideris and Sideris 2010), those who live in more impoverished areas tend to visit their neighborhood parks less often than those who do not (Park et. al. 2018). This lack of use among poorer communities, however, tends to be a reflection of perceptions of safety and time allotted to leisure activities away from the home.
But Riverside-Normal City is not a place that I would describe as “unsafe,” and those who live there tend to view it as at least relatively safe (“Survey Results”). Several people interviewed and surveyed during fieldwork noted that they found the neighborhood “mostly safe” despite not being asked about the neighborhood specifically. This safety has been attributed to the presence of adults living within the community and the responsibility of the college students who live there. Contrary to possible claims of lack of safety, the neighborhood can be rather cozy in some spots. Houses are many, compact but not without charm. Some of the housing here is so outstanding in design and quality that a district has been registered on the National Register of Historic Places as of 1999 (“Riverside Historic Districts”). The trees that line the streets give one a connection to the natural world even before one has a chance to make it to Tuhey just nearby. One can cross over from the sidewalk of Riverside and down into the depths of the neighborhood in a matter of minutes, making it quite accessible by foot, should the infrastructure cooperate.
Despite the proximity of housing to each other and to the park nearby, access to the neighborhood and by extension Tuhey Park by foot may be hindered in part by the quality of the street-level infrastructure, which, according to the Riverside-Normal City Action Plan is considered to be “inconsistent” (“Area 2”). This was noticeable on my travels down Light Street, which takes one from the Riverside sidewalk down to North Street, from which one may enter Tuhey from the western side. North Street has also become victim to deterioration, its sidewalks broken, cracked, sinking, and beginning to be covered in overgrown plants. Walking to Tuhey alone may not be as comfortable as one might hope, but it is often the number of intersections and the length of sidewalk itself that can determine who in a neighborhood attends a park (Baran et. al. 2014), and not just the quality of a few sidewalks. There are other ways to get there as well, as the neighborhood is intimately connected to other methods of travel, such as the bike paths down the Cardinal Greenway and around the White River. Although there appears to be virtually no bike lanes to be found within the neighborhood itself, which limits activity from those in that area who rely on bicycling (“Area 2”, “Area 3”, “Area 4”), such amenities may be created under the planned Muncie Arts and Cultural Trail project, which will connect Tuhey more intimately with other significant Muncie locations (“Muncie Arts & Cultural Trail”). Of course, people also drive through this neighborhood, as a decent percentage of the residents use their cars to travel through Muncie (“Survey Results”) with many passing me by as I walked through it. Though a good number of visitors to Tuhey report coming by foot, the most arrivals to Tuhey came by such vehicles and there is most likely a connection there.
Riverside in the Park
During my third trip to Tuhey Park this Fall, I came across a group of six young boys and one older teen playing a game in an octangular, mulched pit known to some as “Gaga Ball.” The rules to the game can be found elsewhere, but the boys relished in the game competitively, strategically, and cordially. Their screams could be heard from around the park, celebrations, complaints, swears and all. They used pet names and personal names to get each other’s attention and all wore variations on similar gym shorts and t-shirts. The 19-year-old at their center acted as their leader, suggesting new activities, even when the game was over and victory went to a boy with a grey stripe down his shorts. They moved in a pack of seven as other kids from around the area had come in and began mingling with them.
Riverside-Normal City finds itself using the park to socialize often, be it between children at play, or by adults who watch their kids do their thing. In fact, it perhaps instead facilitates socializing and bond formation. Oftentimes, fresh but brief friendships form among kids who meet on the playground, only to perhaps dissolve upon leaving. Two very young children, one boy and one girl, met in the park in early October and climbed up the Tuhey Towers implement so that they could slide together. This became a game too, for they soon began to jump into their slides as if to get down them as soon as possible. The pair had just met, and yet were playing and sharing ideas with each other as if they had known each other for much longer.
Riverside-Normal City uses Tuhey in many different ways, but one that is quite common is found in perhaps the most mundane of usages. It is simply a place to get out of the city and out of the neighborhood. For some, it is also a way to treat themselves or their kids for time spent working hard during the week, a way to get out and be active. One man I encountered ever so briefly at the end of one of my observations rounded the corner of a makeshift wooden fence into Tuhey from one of the houses that lie just on the northern border of the park. He was walking his two dogs, as he appeared to have done many times before. Given the amount of dog “remains” I had found previously at the other end of the park, I would not be surprised to find lots of dog walkers out and about there. I asked the man if he had come from far. He told me that he lived in the neighborhood, but had no place to walk his dogs. He had no backyard. This lack of personal yard-space was a common theme among respondents, with most noting that they either lacked a backyard or had one that was very small. Tuhey thus functions as the backyard of those individuals, a place to enjoy open, green space.
Like any neighborhood park and its constituent neighborhood, Tuhey Park and the residents of Riverside-Normal City have a reciprocal relationship, with one’s success often depending upon the other (Jacobs 1961). The residents of the neighborhood rely upon Tuhey in part for physical activity, and do so for its proximity, its open space, safety and activity spaces for children, and its nature as being open to the public. Also like other neighborhood parks, Tuhey relies on the continued patronage in order to stay relevant and maintained (Jacobs 1961). In some regards, it functions for the residents as a shared, open, and communal greenspace that they do not find at home. As Heather Williams, president of the Riverside-Normal City Neighborhood Association once referred to Tuhey, it is the “backyard” of the Riverside neighborhood (Williams Testimonial). But she also notes with vigor that it is not just the backyard of Riverside, but everyone’s backyard. Everyone in Muncie. She declares in one line the intent to keep Tuhey open to the public and shows its role in centering Riverside in manners social. Perhaps not everyone uses Tuhey Park, but the emphasis on the perceived shared nature of the park highlights its importance as open space for all, which appears to be one of its most important aspects for the people of the neighborhood, and perhaps beyond.
After my third visit, I left though the west entrance of the park, just like I had entered it. This time was different, however, for now I was not heading home just by myself, as I had in my previous visits. In fact, I lagged just behind the young woman who was tending to the small children before as she walked into the neighborhood and into a house a short distance away. I could see just how close that she – and most likely the other teenager and the playing boys – had come from. Not more than a minute’s travel. And with that, for just a brief moment, I joined them in Riverside-Normal City as a neighbor and could feel the draw of Tuhey. How it forms bonds and breaks and maintains them, how it invites the neighborhood to become active, and how it serves the people who live nearby and far away.
The fact that the city parks section of the City of Muncie website officially states that Tuhey Park stands to serve the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood (“Tuhey Park”) may lead one to believe that the users of the park are mostly contained within that neighborhood. This is in part true. Children and adults from around the area certainly use it, and perhaps do so most often, as the quality and cultural makeup of the surrounding neighborhood often decides the fate of a park as popular or unpopular (Jacobs 1961). Yet the userbase of Tuhey and its impact extends far beyond its borders. In one brief conversation with a woman who I met while in Tuhey, she revealed to me that she had come not from within the nearby neighborhood, but from at least ten minutes away by car, as other people we observed and talked to did. She explained that her visit to Tuhey that day was quite deliberate. She was with her two sons at the time, one aged two, the other aged four. This second boy has issues with muscular development, which makes it crucial that he remain active in environments that facilitate his growth. She praised Tuhey for its ability to challenge her child in ways that other parks may not offer through the presence of its playground and the Tuhey Towers. She and her sons routinely visited Tuhey for this reason, despite her living far away from the park. What this woman found in Tuhey was not just a space for her kids to enjoy, but a place for her son to literally grow and thrive, for its challenge and for the freedom of movement that it provides, and she was more than willing to go out of her way to get there. Tuhey draws people despite the distance because of its unique features and acts as a center for such parents and children alike.
This extended reach is not limited to the observable users of the park, but to the manner in which those far away speak as well. In fact, it was mentioned by people who were asked about improvement of the parks in general quite frequently, even if they were not currently using Tuhey Park or even nearby. During field observations in Heekin Park, which lies about five miles southeast of Tuhey Park, for example, there were several such instances of people mentioning Tuhey in conversation despite it not being explicitly mentioned by the researchers. More specifically, when prompted to share about how to improve the parks of Muncie in general, some Heekin visitors shared a desire to improve Tuhey, with some cases mentioning a problem with invasive species, such as Muncie’s infamous geese (Now, I never saw a goose there in my time there, but maybe I was just not looking hard enough for it). Yet it stands, that be it for the presence of infuriating fowl or for the fun memories made at the park, it would appear that Tuhey Park is still on the minds of those who have visited it in the past, even those who are not using it.
Thinking about Tuhey without being prompted to do so is not exclusive to such conversations, either. When surveyed about whether or not Tuhey Park should be developed by the YMCA, a fairly heavy majority responded with disapproval, with a ratio of nearly 11 to 1 wanting to keep Tuhey open to the public (Save Tuhey Map). People frequently responded to surveys regarding the parks as a whole with clear desire for the YMCA – and other private entities – to stay away from Tuhey, even when not prompted to comment on the status of the project (Parks Plan 2021), with the most vehement of detractors commenting that the plan was “bullshit” and they wanted no part in it. It is a crucial issue and one that the people who use the parks refuse to ignore. But what is most interesting about these responses is not just that they want to “save Tuhey,” but rather the location from where they were coming and where those respondents lived. The densest clusters of respondents who said “No” to having the YMCA build is found, perhaps unsurprisingly, within the neighborhood of Riverside-Normal City and just beyond around McCulloch Park to the east. It does serve that neighborhood, and any change to it would affect the “backyard” of Riverside. Yet what can also be seen is that people all around Muncie have strong opinions on the status of Tuhey, dotting the map as individuals in all corners of the city, often also wanting to keep the YMCA out. Further still, people outside of Muncie border responded to this survey, again often with “No.” To say that Tuhey is important to the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood would itself be an understatement, but it would also appear that Tuhey as a park, a desired open space, reaches far beyond the neighborhood it is officially sanctioned to “service,” instead playing an important role in the lives of people far and beyond its borders. It is as if those who come to Tuhey take a part of it with them.
By March 29, 2021, the call for Tuhey Park to be “saved” from the development of the YMCA of Muncie appeared to have finally been answered. To the pleasure of the community that values the presence of Tuhey Park as an open space for all who wish to attend, it was announced that the Muncie YMCA would not be developing at Tuhey (“Tuhey Park No Longer Being Considered…”). To be more precise, it was not that the Parks Board had decided to prevent the project, but rather that the YMCA had decided to start looking elsewhere, as if run down by the comments of disfavor for its plans. Or perhaps, it was more that they had awoken to the importance of the public space they planned to encroach upon.
But what exactly is that importance? Why would development in Tuhey Park stir such controversy in the first place? Perhaps in just its opening lines the Save Tuhey website has already provided the best answer to these questions: “It may live in the Riverside-Normal City neighborhood, but it belongs to the entire city of Muncie. It is a beautiful greenspace – a place to play, to gather, to make memories” (Save Tuhey). It is not only crucial to those who live directly around Tuhey, those who make it their “backyard,” but rather to the whole of Muncie itself in creating a sense of community. Not only is Tuhey Park found at Riverside-Normal City at the center of Muncie, but it, in part, also serves as its center. A challenge against it could never be taken lightly.
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