Friday, February 9, 2007
Whither the downtown park? Nearby me in St. Petersburg, Florida, the city is making an effort to encourage more workers to visit the arboreal Williams Park in the middle of the city. In recent years, the park, like many others across the nation, has been known largely as a center for homeless people.
American cultural history gives us a likely history of Williams Park, which was once a focal point for civic and other events in a winter tourist town. In the 1950s, one might imagine, an unshaven man who lingered in the park after dusk might have been told to “move along” by the local cop, and the man might even have been arrested (especially if he were not white) under the vagrancy laws. As our culture and laws became more enlightened, we scrapped the vagrancy laws and made allowances for homeless people. One result –- fair or not –- is that what should be a pleasant oasis of green and shade in St. Pete is largely shunned by downtown workers and residents. This remains the case even in a city with sunshine more than 300 days of the year and a burgeoning downtown residential population.
A few decades ago, we can imagine that many civic and business leaders might have simply written off such a park as an irrelevancy, as they sped past in their Cadillacs from their office garages to their suburban homes. With today’s greater attention to the health of downtowns, however, more cities are trying to encourage non-homeless people to reclaim their use of downtown parks, without stepping on the needs of the homeless. One of the most famous successes has been Bryant Park in New York City, just behind the main Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, where the drug dealers of the 1970s (Were the 1970s the nadir for cities in America?) have been pushed out and lunchtime picnickers have returned. A combination of new design (better lighting, cleaning up), enticing capitalism (hot dog and other vendors judiciously allowed into the park), and a combination of municipal and business efforts lured people back.
St. Petersburg is trying a similar method, starting with Wednesday “Midday Markets” with food and other vendors. This past Wednesday’s kickoff market was apparently a success, even though (because?) there were a half dozen police officers in attendance to ward off any potential clashes between the homeless people and the shoppers.
Keys to the success of getting workers and residents to visit their downtown parks is to get local businesses involved (Appeal to their sense of civic pride?) and to provide some big incentives (such as quality vendors of sausage and ice cream) to visitors. Once visitors realize that they and the homeless CAN co-exist, maybe they WILL co-exist.