Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Municipal Principles...

There's a small park in our neighborhood. For a long time, it was pretty much a haven for vagrants, drug dealers and vandalizing punks. We rarely saw anyone else use it. A few years ago, we started walking our dog there. We'd walk around the grounds and think to ourselves "This could be a really nice park... too bad it's such a shithole." Park maintenance staff? About the only time we saw them, they were sitting at the picnic tables under the shelter playing cards and smoking. Park security? They seemed more interested in yelling at us to put our dog on a leash than anything else (even when we were the only ones in the park... which we usually were).

After a while, it occurred to us to start picking up some of the litter that was so generously strewn about, since no one else seemed to take responsibility for doing it. Some of the more vile things we'd regularly find were used condoms just steps away from the playground equipment, drug paraphernalia and cooked spoons, glass beer bottles shattered on the basketball court and picnic areas, and soiled clothing and underpants. Some disgusting waste of life even took a crap in one of the baby swings. Once, there was a marijuana plant growing in the cracks of the cement under one of the picnic shelters. We left it there to see how big it would get before Park Maintenance noticed and removed it. It was there growing happily for a couple weeks. My guess is some stoner probably unearthed it and took it home to replant. (To be honest, we actually thought about doing that ourselves!)

I had been battling with City Hall on another neighborhood issue at the time, and I mentioned the sad state of our neighborhood park to my city councilman in an e-mail. He forwarded it on to the head of the Parks Department, who forwarded it on to the Chief of Police. Apparently, the cops were aware of the rampant drug activity going on there, and the Chief indicated he'd look into stepping up patrols in the area. Meanwhile, we kept using the park and doing our best to keep up with the trash and discourage the "unsavory" characters from hanging around. I'll tell ya, people waiting to buy or sell drugs really don't like it when you just stare at them. It's kinda funny to watch them fidget for a while, then make a call and slink off. And they REALLY don't want you to see their license plates!

Eventually, the shady activities seemed to decrease a bit, and other dog owners began to use the park. (Not all of them were good about picking up after their pets, but that's another story.) Then a couple years ago, a new Parks Department District Supervisor was assigned to our area. The old rusty fence was replaced. Then the playground equipment was touched up and got a new rubbery cushion and lots of new mulch. New trees were planted. The picnic shelters were repaired and painted and BBQ grills were put in. Park Maintenance staff routinely came in and cleaned up. The new supervisor really worked hard to make a difference in our park. And ya know what? People started using the park as it was intended... softball practice, peewee football practice, even jr. lacrosse practice, family picnics and birthday parties. Slowly, it has become a nice, thriving neighborhood park once again. We still have the occasional vagrant and vandal, but nothing like it was just three or four years ago. We call Park Security when we see a transient dude sleeping on the picnic benches or hanging around, and they usually say "Thanks. We'll send someone out."

Usually. One morning last week, there was a homeless dude sitting at the table under one of the picnic shelters. I'm not comfortable confronting these guys... I don't know who they are or what their story is, or if they're violent or packing weapons or whacked out on drugs. So when we got to the other end of the park, I called Park Security. Here's the gist of how the call went:

Me: "Hi, I want to report a vagrant hanging out in (insert park name here) Park."
Security: "Where is he?"
Me: "Sitting at the table right beside the playground equipment."
Security: "What's he doing?"
Me: "Uh... sitting there."
Security: "Well, we can't kick him out for sitting there. If he was exposing himself or defacating in public or being a nuisance...."
Me: "So... even though the sign posted at the gate clearly states 'No Loitering', you won't enforce it?"
Security: "We can't kick him out for being homeless. He has a right to use the park."
Me: "Well I'll tell you, I really wouldn't feel safe in the park alone with him there, and I sure as heck wouldn't be comfortable bringing kids here."
Security: "That's why we recommend people go to (bigger park name) Park, or (bigger park name) Park. There's safety in numbers."
Me: "So... you're telling me that I SHOULDN'T use my own neighborhood park if I'm uncomfortable with vagrants loitering in it? That I should drive 20 minutes away to another park? Is that how my tax dollars work now?"
Security: "You can try calling the Police non-emergency number. I can give it to you if you want."
Me: "No thanks... I have that number already. Thanks very much and have a lovely day."

WTF???? Now, I'm not insensitive to the plight of the homeless, especially in the current economy. That being said, I have a real problem with transient men hanging around what is essentially a neighborhood playground! Is it just me? Or does it seem extremely inappropriate to you, too? And for the security staff of the Parks Department to tell me to use another park if I'm uncomfortable with it just seems grossly negligent. Maybe I'm just overly fearful of the park reverting back to the sorry state it was in before, especially if security can't (or won't) enforce the posted rules. If they won't enforce the loitering policy, what about the other rules? Are they arbitrary too? I wonder.

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