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Taking Back a Neighborhood Park

June 30, 2012

Summer means many things:  The arrival of warm weather, school’s out, and families head outdoors to places like their neighborhood park.  That only happens if families view their local park as a safe, clean and usable public space suitable for recreation.  Those conditions can vanish is a park becomes the hangout of delinquents, trouble-makers and vandals.  It takes only a few of these to render a park a no-go zone for mothers with children and their sustained presence can impact an entire neighborhood.

Such is the situation with ‘Oak Park’ in the neighborhood where this writer lives.  it is an old park, in a neighborhood near downtown filled with older homes, most of them well-kept.  There is only one business adjacent to the park (a funeral home) and the shaded, leafy streetscape mirrors the park itself, filled with majestic oaks for which it is named.  warm weather finds the gazebo used for outdoor concerts and weddings and the playground equipment was often filled with neighborhood children, mine included, while parents sat on nearby benches, taking in the unfolding interplay of children at play all around them.

A Saturday morning in June at Oak Park with the Gazebo in the foreground. The park was empty when this photo was taken.

Over the course of 2011, this changed, as the park became the haunt of a clique of delinquent teens whose profanity, rudeness, anti-social behavior (including harassing mourners paying their last respects to departed loved ones at the funeral home across the street) and obscene graffiti rendered the formerly lively park empty of all but themselves.

Empty playground equipment on a sunny Saturday morning.

When children misbehave, adults are expected to intervene.  They have.  City Council posted park rules, city workers chained down the picnic tables so that they could not be moved inside the gazebo (a favorite practice of the delinquents in question), police patrols call there regularly, and the neighbors have met and talked about organizing a neighborhood watch.

The arrival of warm weather brought a renewal of the previous year’s troubles to Oak Park.  Increased police presence, park rules enforcement and continuing neighbor intervention have yet to reclaim the park for peaceful purposes.  Graffiti continues to festoon the picnic tables and trash is as likely to be outside the garbage cans as in them.

Summer weather brought out more pests than just mosquitoes – delinquency and vandalism returned, as well.

The neighborhood watch idea, first broached at a meeting of approximately 30 neighborhood residents late in 2011, has matured into an initial police contact and the assignment of an officer-liaison to the group.  Stepped-up adult intervention, both of the enforcement and positive engagement varieties, may take time, but concerted neighborhood action is the best hope for making Oak Park once again a destination for families and children looking to enjoy the summer weather, the park and themselves.

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