by Steve Coleman

I. A Parable for Parks

Legend has it that three starving wanderers begging for food in a poor village were rejected at door after door by people who said they had nothing to offer. Then the wanderers had an idea. They built a pile of kindling and logs at the center of the town square, and asked the town blacksmith if they could borrow a very large pot, which they placed atop the wood, then filled the pot half full with water from the village well. Three stones from a nearby field were then very ceremoniously added to the pot, and the fire beneath was lit. To the puzzled onlookers who asked, the strange wanderers announced that they were making Stone Soup.

They then went back to one of the first houses where they had knocked before and invited the family to a great feast in the town square that evening, where they would be serving Stone Soup. Word of these strange doings had already traveled through the town, and the residents were quite flattered by this offer and curious to see this exotic dish. The family eagerly returned to their cellar to search for the requested onions that would make the soup especially tasty. Lo and behold, the onions sprang forth from the very cellar that had been reported bare just an hour earlier. At the next house, the wanderers repeated the invitation and asked if a few carrots might be spared. The carrots emerged miraculously from some apparently hitherto unsearched part of the larder. On around the village the wanderers went, filling their satchels with all kinds of food.

That night, when the whole town turned out at the square, villagers were stunned to find a sumptuous celebration with food for everyone. It was such a happy occasion, in fact, that the villagers insisted on getting the recipe from the wanderers before they left town. For generations afterwards, the Stone Soup Feast became a regular tradition, drawing thousands from towns far and wide.

II. The Story of Stone Soup Park

Those of us in the business of revitalizing urban parks have been making Stone Soup for a long time. Lacking large sums of cash when we start out — and in some cases lacking any money whatsoever — we have been continually surprised to realize all the resources that we have to draw upon. Parks themselves, no matter how destitute looking, have tremendous strengths available to anyone who takes the time to unearth them. Non-cash community resources not only help stretch limited dollars farther; they also root lasting community investment in the Park in ways that money alone never could have done. Knowing how to unearth these resources is thus a skill that is as vital to well-established and well-funded park agencies and institutions as it is to fledgling local friends groups.

Although the following story is a fictitious composite, it combines real examples of non-cash resources from several community parks successfully restored here in Washington. This story is being repeated in thousands of different ways in urban parks around the world.

Stone Soup Park has been overrun by prostitutes and drug dealers for years, and lately it’s become even more of a wasteland of violence and despair. They gave it a beautiful design and a big chunk of money to build it, but the designer ignored us when we tried to get him to think about a few basic safety considerations. Even worse, it seems like somebody forgot to figure out how to pay for all the maintenance, programs, and policing that the Park needed. Now people are saying the whole place should just be torn up and replaced by a shopping mall or something more useful than another frightening park. Lord knows we don’t need any more fear in the neighborhood, and we desperately need something we can be proud of.

But some of us aren’t ready to give up. Last week we got talking about the Park in a church basement meeting of the neighborhood association, and a few of us decided to start the Save Stone Soup Park Task Force. Most people said that we were crazy and fighting a hopeless battle, that nobody cared. We decided we would never know if it could be done unless we tried.

We start with one or two simple walks in the Park, publicized by posting simple flyers on light poles in the neighborhood, making an announcement at the local community associations, and stopping to talk to people in the Park and on the blocks nearby. The Park isn’t asfrightening as we thought it would be, maybe because we are in a group. On the walks, long-time residents remind us what is possible by sharing their memories of what the Park once was. We even greet and get to know some of the people who use the Park now, who show us many things that are still good and strong about the place, as well as some of the obstacles standing in the way of improving the Park. And on one of our walks children — better able to dream than the rest of us — draw marvelous pictures of what our Park could be.

A little research on the history of the Park at the local library and historical society, along with a walk in the neighborhood, helps us make a simple sketched map of the neighborhood and its assets. We discover many of the things that make Stone Soup Park so special, and pinpoint all the nearby schools, religious institutions, agencies, youth groups, community associations, college service groups, businesses, professional firms, and volunteer organizations that we can ask to help the Park. A couple of us set up a card table at the local farmer’s market for two hours one Saturday morning and collect the names and phone numbers of 185 people who sign our petition for the Park to be saved, including 37 people who agree to be volunteers.

With an initial work day scheduled, a local blues band, dance troupe, and Double Dutch jump rope team agree to donate performances and a group of local audiophiles provide and operate the sound equipment, turning the work into a community celebration. Then a real estate office offers us the use of its phones one evening to conduct a phone bank to get the word out more broadly to the neighborhood. Area businesses such as flower shops and nurseries, print shops, silkscreening companies, grocery and convenience stores, and restaurants donate plant material, mulch, photocopies, T-Shirts, drinks, and food for the event.

Pretty soon, all kinds of people are stepping forward in response to our campaign for the Park. A bike shop invites neighborhood young people to come out to the Park for free help fixing their bikes in return for volunteering to help the Park. Several radio stations and community newspapers provide free promotion. A local hardware store donates tools and gloves. Adjacent apartment buildings or institutions agree to stuff mailboxes with flyers for the event. A landscape contractor loans specialized maintenance tools and labor. A construction company agrees to provide a large dumpster for trash.

On the day of the work event, we don’t get quite the turnout we had hoped for, but someone comments how remarkable it is that 65 volunteers show up in a drizzling rain to help out the Park. A local photographer shoots a roll of film showing the park before and after, so everyone can see what we’ve accomplished. The news media is there filming as we fill up the dumpster, plant flowers, and mulch. We put up a little community bulletin board at the entrance to the Park and post our first notice: a follow-up community picnic meeting at the Park.

Then an elderly woman from across the street comes up to us with a big smile, a grateful hug, and an envelope. It is our first contribution, and a generous one, especially considering that we’ve done all of our work so far without a penny to our name. If we could do all this with “nothing,” just think what we can do with this lady’s hundred dollars!

The Work Day looks like it will be just the beginning. A multicultural coalition of youth groups offers to work with a muralist to paint a mural about the Park on the street outside. An elementary school teacher decides to get his class to use pictures from the first event to make an interactive media program about the history of the Park. A building manager is so impressed by what we’ve done that he offers us a small donated office in the basement of his apartment building next to the Park. No heat or cooling, but it has electricity, it’s next to the Park, and it is our home.

At the end of the Work Day, we take the time to hang out with some of the Park’s long-time heroes — the people who have been watching out over it for years. Many of them have now become our close friends and teachers. We’ve learned a great deal from them about our own Park and community, and they have truly inspired us. One man, a former drug dealer who can’t read or write, is particularly moving when he tells us about how beautiful the Park is to him. He is becoming one of the top volunteers working to make the Park safe again. One of the main people he is working with is another teacher — the police officer who grew up two blocks from the Park and who has decided to come back to the Park to help us bring back some of the Park of his boyhood.

Now the parks agency, which initially was too overwhelmed with work to give us the time of day, wants to meet with us to develop a long-term partnership for the Park.

The Friends of Stone Soup Park has begun. And with a beginning like this, we know we will go far.

–July, 1998

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