A Day at the Park

Washington Park is a social experiment so vastly successful Cincinnatians might be unaware of the nuances in its meaning.We’re still spastically drunk off the park’s new-park smell.

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:50 am

Washington Park is a perfect storm.

If the park were a poem, then its cacophony would be co-authored by Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Kanye West. Baraka for the unmitigated barbed wire truth; Sanchez for the soft black song; and West for the rhythmic blast of cultural criticism.

After a much ballyhooed 18-month, $47 million renovation, the truth of the 150-year-old park can be told beyond the sugary chirp of a self-congratulatory 3CDC press release or an “urban” blog.

Washington Park is a social experiment so vastly successful Cincinnatians might be unaware of the nuances in its meaning.

We’re still spastically drunk off the park’s new-park smell.

Is this the very place rioters clashed with police and were met with a hail of rubber bullets after the April 2001 shooting of Timothy Thomas? Is this the very same park where, as a strange punctuation to the park’s soon-to-be past, Officer Marty Polk accidentally ran over and killed JoAnn Burton who was resting beneath a blanket near a shade tree?

When renovation plans were first announced, the idea that a dog park — which is what stuck in most people’s craw — would replace what’d become known as a bum’s cathedral unnerved a lot of folks, especially the itinerant and their supporters.

Washington Park was synonymous with sex and drugs and for being the way station of the homeless, the addicted and the voyeurs who derived pleasure and a ghetto pass for hanging out there.

It was also an ominous shortcut to Music Hall, one you’d rarely see symphony season pass holders using without police escorts.

Much as I personally lamented the growing and speedy reach of planned beautification, bulldozing over and then replanting and redesigning the park gave me pause.

If we are so humane and we care as much about our homeless as some of us we say we do, then is turning a blind eye to a park we’d let become a cesspool of human decay the right thing to do, or do we turn it back over to families and children as a safe haven of play and community gathering?

Our homeless need safe shelter, not vulnerability.

They’re not our open secret.

Parks are for play, for gathering, safe socializing.

Interestingly, the park already has its own built-in hierarchies like society-at-large. The old-school denizens who used to call the park home and who have the collective institutional memories of the acrid smell of piss, the threat of sex and drugs and of boisterous card games as a pastime sit on benches ringing the outer realms of the now eight-acre green space. They’re still shadowy figures, trying to figure out how to co-exist with all these new intruders.

In a weirdly professional way, so is Marvin Hawkins, known to most of us as the leader of the great live band Marvin and The Experience.

He is now charged by 3CDC as a program coordinator who oversees Fountain Square and some of the activities in Washington Park. A bald, fast-talking black man who always seems just on the verge of breaking into a full-on sweat, Hawkins has been at this programming stuff just four months after a musician’s life of world travel and the last decade working at City Hall.

He grew up in Avondale and Evanston and from the fifth through the 10th grades attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts when it was on Sycamore Street.

He walked from there over to Music Hall for Opera training.

He passed through Washington Park.

“I know all about the drug infestation and the crime,” he tells me in a glassed-in conference room in 3CDC’s Race Street headquarters, where everyone I see except Hawkins is a youngish white man wearing some form of khaki.

“I actually got to see it before.”

Hawkins drops his voice to a near-whisper and refers to his employers in the third person, things many corporate blacks do when they’re truth telling about where they work.

“I don’t think initially they even knew the magnitude of what they were taking on,” Hawkins says of 3CDC, when I ask about the park’s transition. “Along the way they learned a valuable lesson ... what was once a dividing line (could be) a commune. It’s been a beacon of activity if you stand there and take it all in.”

And if you relied only on mainstream media you’d never know anything about Hawkins’ hand in all that activity or that his Friday Flow Soul Music Series has been drawing throngs of folks to the park for throwback free concerts. The ambient soul of Detroit’s Dwele drew 3,500 people; the funk of Dayton’s Lakeside drew 5,000 people. Hawkins has Soul and Jazz singer Lalah Hathaway and songstress Chrisette Michele lined up in the coming weeks and he’s confirmed legendary Hip-Hop Kangol king Slick Rick to close the series Sept. 7.

Not everyone in the neighborhood has welcomed the traffic and the concerts’ noise, but Hawkins says the gratitude far outweighs the complaints. And complaints are necessary.

Even from those averse to progress in the park.

“A lot of the outcry resulted in a better product,” Hawkins says. “For me, it’s all about making the community better.”
Despite its iconic status in the community, for generations the park had been a dividing line. “I was talking to some elders by the Regal Theatre. They said, ‘You didn’t dare cross over to (Race Street).’ Blacks didn’t. They were concentrated in the West End. Their parents told them to stay away from Washington Park.”

In the midday sun black and white children zoom in and out of the park’s syncopated water shoots, narrowly avoiding head-on collisions. Shirtless black boys sun themselves atop the granite steps of a waterfall.

When one zips through the water, smacking lightly into a white toddler, the girl looks anxiously after the boy then at her mother.

“You’re OK,” the mother says to her girl.

True for Washington Park and us.

CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]