by Austin Allen, Associate Professor of Film,

Cleveland State University

From Parks As Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

I want to start off by giving a little background on my documentary film “Claiming Open Spaces,” because I started that film project out of a fear that the experience that I had in parks as a teenager in Columbus, Ohio would be lost forever.

There was a park in Columbus, Franklin Park, where for years, local African-American teenagers from the surrounding neighborhoods had gathered in the thousands. It was something that seemed to happen very naturally in that setting. But in 1992, a new international floral exhibition was scheduled to happen in the park, and the city closed the park for three years to redesign it. Of course, use of Franklin Park basically came to a halt for that period, and when it reopened it was a different park – one that had no relation to the people who had used it for so long.

As I began to talk to other people about it, I realized that there was often a conflict between the uses the park was designed for and the activities actually enjoyed by young African-Americans in the park. I became interested in all of the cultural and social traditions that have come through the park experience for African-Americans. So I started on a venture, visiting some very important historical sites in five cities, to tell the story of what had happened in Franklin Park in my film.

One city I went to was Birmingham, Alabama. I went there because the images we associate with Birmingham are, of course, the civil rights movement, police dogs, fire hoses. But we never think about the fact that it all happened in a park – that those images come from Kelly Ingram Park.

“In Kelly Ingram Park . . . the momentum for civil rights in Birmingham began.”

Kelly Ingram Park had become the stage for civil rights demonstrations because the city had closed its sixty-eight parks rather than have them integrated, and because the park was the center of the African-American experience in Birmingham – picnics, events, many social things were happening in that space. So, in this park, the momentum for civil rights in Birmingham began.

I also visited New Orleans – Congo Square, which is probably one of the earliest representations of African-Americans interacting in urban parks, going back to the 1700s. It was a vital center of the culture. Even Native Americans had used it as a place to hold feasts and other events. Then a number of free African-Americans began to use it. Later, slaveowners would allow slaves to go to Congo Square to have a free day. Eventually the most important American art form, jazz, was created in Congo Square because for the first time, people from Senegal, people from Mali, people from other parts of Africa, could trade instruments, trade rhythms, they could trade all kinds of patterns that they did not have access to. Even modern dance as we know it has its roots in that space.

After finding connections between these public parks and culture, between parks and social change, I began to consider the whole question of Olmsted: What went into his designs? What was behind his ideas?

Before Olmsted designed Central Park, he made a journey down to the South for about 14 months to specifically look at slavery and the land. He eventually wrote three books on this topic, one of them over 700 pages long – he really thought about the connections between culture and the land.

In one of these books, Journey Into the Southern Seaboard Slave States, written in 1856, Olmsted wrote, “the great trouble and anxiety of Southern gentlemen is how, without quite destroying the capabilities of the Negro for any work at all, to prevent him from learning to take care of himself.”

I love to start from that point because it takes me back to a teacher of mine, J.B. Jackson, whom I credit with opening my eyes to certain things. One day I was talking to him about American landscapes and he told me about how Europeans coming over the new world found it easy to farm in New England because they knew the soil; but when they started to farm in Virginia, it didn’t take but three years for the soil to erode and everything to go wrong, because they did not know that soil. It was unfamiliar to them. He said, “Of course when they brought slave ships over they brought the grasses and other plants that helped them manage that land.” And I realized that slavery wasn’t about bringing brute strength over across the water, it was about bringing a body of knowledge across the water. A body of knowledge that knew how to transform a place, and would transform how we think about that place. So, from the very beginning, what slaveowners did was convince the slaves they were not providing the knowledge that they were in fact, providing. And therein lies the dilemma that Olmsted was speaking about.

“We’ve been taught how to see without seeing — how to experience spaces while ignoring the cultural imprints and connections to people that make them significant.”

It is that problem that I think is confronting the park spaces of today. We’ve been taught how to see without seeing – how to experience spaces while ignoring the cultural imprints and connections to people that make them significant. Olmsted understood this dilemma – he imported a European model for park design but he also studied the intricacies of culture in America, because he wanted to understand how his parks would be used. In his books about the South, he talks about the intricate details of how rice paddies are made, how to farm cotton, etc. And he’s also paying attention to the details of every dialect of every slave he runs across – this is why it’s such an important document. And you realize he’s bringing this understanding to New York. I contend that Olmsted works a lot of these issues out in his designs in Central Park. Particularly his thoughts of a democratic structure.

Unfortunately when Olmsted designed Central Park, he was confronted with an African-American village called Seneca Village which was located inside the land set aside for Central Park. A deal had been struck by 1853 to do away with this village. Somehow I think out of the agony of what happened – because it was not a peaceful removal of people – came this assertion of the democratic park. Therein starts a very interesting thought process about how we think about parks and design.

Finally, if we leap ahead now, years later – it is the Seneca Villages that have now surrounded the Olmsted parks. Fifty-seven percent of the use of Central Park is by minorities. I think of the possibilities. And the point to me is that there is a great opportunity to dream spaces anew – not just for African-Americans, but for other people as well. But we need to learn how to really see – and recognize the value and the knowledge these villages have within them that they can bring to a park. A democratic park.

That’s not to say we should throw out everything in terms of Olmsted. It’s a great credit to him that so many of his designs have worked for 100 years or more and are still sustainable – it’s because he understood that he had to accommodate different types of people in his parks. But it is to say that there are no limits, because there are people who can dream the space entirely differently than the way we think about parks. And it’s going to call for opening the door to new design ideas and to new ideas of how culture works in these kinds of spaces.