what is a park for?

golden gate park, ca. 1896 (sfpl historic photograph collection)

This week a red-hot public quarrel erupted over the proposed eviction of the HANC recycling center that has been occupying a half acre of park land next to Kezar Stadium for the past 30 years or so.  Recreation and Park staff are proposing to replace the recycling center with a decorous community garden, which they feel is more appropriate than a recycling center in Golden Gate Park.  Their proposal would retain the native plant nursery that has been thriving on the site among the recycling center’s bins, chain link fences and oil-stained asphalt over the past 7 years in an unlikely partnership that is probably unique in public parks of this ilk around the country.

Listening to the various arguments, pro and con, presented by a lengthy parade of speakers before the Commission last night, I thought back to the founding of Golden Gate Park and the long period of public wrangling that preceded that historic moment in 1870, when the city finally triumphed and evicted the squatters on the Outside Lands to create the park.  And the even longer squabble that preceded the establishment of Central Park in New York City, which was the model for Golden Gate Park and other similar parks across the country.  And the ideological battles that Frederick Law Olmsted and John McLaren fought during their long careers to protect a certain vision of parks:  as oases of Nature in the City where bourgeois decorum would rule and rub off on those “less favored by fortune.”   From the beginning park police and park gardeners had the job of enforcing this vision, and it was always a hard sell, as this excerpt from the New York Times, Dec. 28, 1877 illustrates:

Officer Meaney yesterday, while on duty in the upper portion of Central Park, espied a large bonfire blazing brightly in the woods. He approached the burning pile, and was astonished to discover a middle-aged man, apparently immersed in deep thought, standing with his back to the burning brushwood, warming his coat-tails, and seemingly unconscious of his surroundings and position. In close proximity to the bonfire was a curiously-constructed hut, built without any regard for architectural design, and composed merely of several rough-hewn logs of wood, mingled with freshly-cut branches of trees, which, being entwined around the logs, helped to support and brace them. In this romantic residence, the interior of which contained neither furniture nor bedding, the stranger had determined to reside, at least temporarily, away from the strife and busy turmoil of the great Metropolis.

In a broad sense, the dispute that flared up over the HANC recycling center has been going on for nearly a century and a half and the arguments are familiar:   who are parks for? what are they for?   how subject to public process and public opinion should they be? who gets to control them?

Maybe it’s the “nature” of public parks to keep these arguments alive?  That seems like a good thing.

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About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in guerilla gardeners, history, infrastructure, recycling. Bookmark the permalink.

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