Thursday, May 21, 2009

Slippery Slope Park

String of Pearls - Soul Asylum (mp3)
This is the way a park ends
This is the way a park ends
This is the way a park ends
Not with a bang, but the convergence of nine police officers on two alleged drug dealers selling shit from the trunk of their car.
I took my family to Coolidge Park on Monday evening. We hadn't been down there in a couple of years, due to the complications of a newborn son and our daughters outgrowing bikes we could fit into our minivan. It's no longer the park I remember.

Four years ago, Coolidge Park in daylight hours was home to hippies and romantics and studious Christian college kids. You had drum circles, young kids playing guitars poorly, circles of girls and young women wearing those funky multi-color hippy dresses, families pushing strollers and singing songs from The Sound of Music. On the other side of the bridge, you had young kids and teenagers throwing frisbees and footballs and frolicking.

When we were there last night, I saw:
  • a woman who was clearly either in the midst of or recovering from a serious meth problem. She was white and looked like a mix between Karen Carpenter and Skeletor, and she was walking with a black dude with dreds.

  • a couple watching their young son run around the place and invite himself to ride our son's pushcar. They were nice enough. They weren't a day over 22. They were unmarried.

  • a phalanx of police officers -- some of them in goofy bicycle shorts like Ponch -- descend on two black dudes who were "allegedly" selling drugs out of the trunk of their car. Only a few minutes after the cops arrived, a small crowd of young African-American guys and gals circled the scene at a safe 40-foot perimeter to witness it. We overheard one of the young guys say, "Damn, ***** just got out last week an' he's already goin' back."

  • a group of about eight Latino teenagers walking around the carousel area, then sitting and talking.

  • a baby about the same age as my son (1-2 years) playing around the fountains. This very young child was already eyeball-poppingly fat. And yes, "fat" is the correct word here. And yes, the parents were also fat. And no, I won't buy that this child was fat solely because of a genetic disorder, unless the genetic disorder in question is known as "parents who eat too much and feed their child too much every damn time he cries."

  • two goth teenagers snuggling on a blanket and having their pasty flesh scorched slowly by the merciless if slowly setting sun.
Yes, I fully realize that my descriptions are teeming with the kind of judgmental bile that makes people hate snooty middle class honkies like myself. I have done this with some intentional exaggeration, but I can't deny that these are descriptions my uncensored self would offer. I also can't deny that everywhere I looked in Coolidge Park on Monday night, I couldn't help but conclude that the place had deteriorated. It was no longer drawing the same people to do the same things.

Four years ago, the park's population was appropriately diverse. I wouldn't say it perfectly mirrored Chattanooga's population breakdown, but it had to be close, both ethnically and economically. On Monday evening at 7 p.m., the population was very skewed. Poor. Minority. Sketchy.

It's gone from being Target to sliding right past Wal-Mart on the way down to the Brainerd Road Bi-Lo.

Such is probably the natural evolution of the city park. When it's a baby, everyone in town wants to come over and visit. Hold it. Sing to it. Watch it eat and coo and cry and poo. Then, when it's a toddler, people continue to stop by, but with less regularity and less balls-to-the-wall enthusiasm. By the time it's hit the middle school years, most folks are making excuses why they just couldn't quite find the time to visit... and they're also secretly talking bad about the little brat behind closed doors. Then, when it's a full-on teenager, it gets all sullen and starts smoking and drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd and beating up weak nerds and scaring the little old ladies.

If Monday evening was any indication -- and maybe I just hit it on a totally bad night? -- Coolidge Park is fast approaching the zit-infested voice-changing 10th grade and doing so in full juvenile offender style. Already most concerned parents and schools have banned or strongly discouraged going there after dusk, even though the whole place is wide open.

And when a place spends its teenage years pushing all the right people away, it will get lonelier and increasingly dominated by a crowd less likely to attract Mr. Roger's Neighborhood than Mr. Robinson's. Maybe it's the inevitable and cyclical nature of parks: They're born. They plateau. They fade. They rot. They die. They revitalize with new money and new design and new attraction, or they die and are replaced by condos.

(My apologies to non-Chattanooga readers for such a town-specific write-up.)


Daisy said...

Your description sounds more like what I remember of Miller Park than the shiny happy Coolidge Park. How long before the save the park fundraising campaign begins?

Bob said...

Given the "free" nature of most activities in a park, isn't it a given that it will eventually become a haven for people who most need the availability of those things that are free and cheap?

I notice that your original qualification was "in daylight hours," meaning that you must have seen this coming for awhile.

It's the pattern of life: all "paradises" will eventually be overcrowded and overrun by those deemed undesirable. Undesirable, in the safest sense, simply means that you didn't invite. It reminds me of The Beach, by Alex Garland.

Tockstar said...

I haven't noticed too much sketchiness at Coolidge, so Monday evening may have been an oddity. I have noticed that the street I live on has been more quiet - sounds like all my neighbors have been hangin' at Coolidge.

I would LOVE to hang out there and offset the sketchy (hope I'm not being too presumptive there), but they don't allow dogs, so my pooch and I pass the lovely spring evenings at Renaissance or Riverview.