Communities need things that last to tie them together.
There was a child went forth every day…
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morningglories and white
and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird…
from Leaves of Grass
When an institution dies, a part of the community dies with it.
I live in the neighborhood in which I grew up. It was never the plan to stick so close to home, but life is a little funny that way. Close by is a park known by just about everyone as the “Choo Choo” park. It originally got that nickname because the playground was dominated by a series of large, concrete train cars. There was also a concrete engine. I believe you could climb into it and slide down.
About a decade ago, the cars, which had been standing for more than 40 years, had choo-chooed their last. They were crumbling and unsafe. The slide no longer slid. And they were certainly not fun to play on anymore.
The city parks department tore down the old playground and built a new one. With a newer, shinier train. I am certain that a wise soul understood that no one would know which park they were going to if there were no train.
The real name of the park is the Village Green. It is 19 acres full of lush, green grass. It has the playground I mentioned, a basketball court, and a baseball field. Most weekends, little ones are playing on the train, big brothers are playing baseball, and older sisters are having lacrosse practice. Young men are playing basketball. A group of people are reenacting medieval sword fighting with boffer swords. A kite enthusiast is using the steady breeze to practice elaborate tricks. Teenagers are hidden in the tunnel to make out.
On 19 acres, there’s space for a lot diversity. LARPers are mere feet from midfielders. B-ballers can see the teenage shenanigans in the tunnel. In a city that tends toward homogeneousness, it is a simple glimpse of the vibrancy that is often hidden behind garage doors and lines at Target.
Not long ago, we had several years of severe drought. Every person in town was affected in some way. Two years in a row we had devastating fires that ripped through our city and affected hundreds upon hundreds of families. Ours is a small town masquerading as a big city, so I haven’t met anyone yet who didn’t know someone affected by one or both of those fires.
Local yards suffered. Water was just too expensive to put on the lawn. Even with sporadic watering, our utility bill skyrocketed to $400 a month. Xeriscaping suddenly became very popular.
Private property suffered, but not as much as the parks. The lush green grass of the Choo-Choo park turned to hardy weeds, sticker bushes, and massive patches of crunchy brown blades. The city could not cover the expense of 19 acres to water, weed, and mow.
The park that was my home for pickup soccer games, flag football, and teenaging was suddenly dirt. And it was treated like it. Little leaguers still used the baseball field, but the outfield was as dry as the infield. The kite flyers went down the road a few miles to a larger park that is mostly prairie grass. Teenagers driven by hormones still canoodled, but that is no big surprise.
Our common ground was quite literally gone.
And it was mourned. We shook our heads at the grocery store and on walks with our dogs. We lost something of ourselves when the grass disappeared.
The past two years, we have had blessed rain. The grass has reseeded. There is moist, deep green. Our neighborhood has come alive alongside the grass. I hadn’t visited that park in years. I’ve been there twice this week. It draws me back. It draws us all back. And I see it becoming the lifeblood of the next generation of our neighborhood. Just as it is a part of me, it will be a part of them. And in 30 years when the current playground needs an overhaul, I just know they’re going to put in another train.