Parks and the Polis
The condition of our spaces for leisure indicate the health of our cities.
Washington, D.C., is known for its diagonals. Pierre Charles L’Enfant had a free rein to draw all the weird designs into the cityscape he wanted to, and—good Freemason that he was—he took it. Thus, there are a host of awkward triangles scattered throughout the district. Some contain creatively shaped buildings, but many are park spaces and plazas. They are not civil engineering and architectural throwaways, however, as arbitrary as their origins might have been. Our cities’ parks, in D.C. and anywhere else, are thermometers, testing and showing the health or illness of our—to double down on the latinate language—urban civic life.
Two parks in particular stand out to me in illustration of this principle. Stanton Park, on Massachusetts Ave NE near Union Station and right in front of Capitol Hill happy hour standby Union Pub, is in healthier days a bit of green space for sitting on a bench and enjoying some sunshine. It has a Capital Bikeshare station and a couple trees and adds a hint of verdancy to an otherwise brick-and-concrete block; it’s nothing more or less than a rest stop, perfect for smokers or a phone call. Today, though, it’s totally given over to a large homeless encampment. The city has consciously allowed this, even encouraged it. What was a break for eyes sore with small print has become itself an eyesore of dirty canvas and debris, a living and decaying symbol of problems the city would rather enable than address.
On the other hand, there is the Bartholdi Park behind the U.S. Botanic Garden on Independence Ave SW. The memorial of the man who gave America our Statue of Liberty is a lush garden of granite and flora, a miniature escape from the brutality of the Health and Human Services and Department of Education buildings as the hill transitions to Rayburn neoclassicism. The park is built around a fountain, the splashing sounds and light refractions of which, in a city of sirens, provide all the gentle soothing of Spain’s Andalusian courtyards. A Capitol Police car is always parked nearby, more for passing traffic than the park, but surely contributing to its cleanliness and order. The Bartholdi triangle is treated by our capital as a chance to reflect on history, with a number of plaques and displays detailing the city’s development. In a pretty part of D.C. it still stands out as one of the prettiest bits, and to walk through it is always to receive an added dose of peace.
Where there is a will, there is a way. These two parks exist as they are by design and effort. One has the misfortune of letting the city continue to fail to really try addressing the root causes of homelessness, such as mental illness, drug abuse, and insufficient shelters. The other is part of our self-presentation as world hegemon, a component of the whole Capitol Hill complex that works so hard to make visually legible that we the United States of America are heirs to a long tradition of republicanism and liberty stretching back to the ancient Hellenic and Roman worlds. Of course part of this is, like everything else in Washington, D.C., a question of jurisdiction, and it’s true the city is not like others, with rule by mayor, council, neighborhood commissions, and, inadequately, Congress. But I would like still to suggest that this simply makes more obvious the degree to which, like all architecture, parks in particular show us our own priorities and help define our cities.
We build parks in the first place as spaces for leisure, and thus of culture. The deepest rest awake is, for the human being and the healthy human society, something active, for we are more than creatures of bare or mere life. We master landscapes in building cities, but in so doing find ourselves missing the wilderness we have left behind. Our animal nature demands we have room to roam, not be always caged in by walls and ceilings; but our intellectual and spiritual natures require that such spaces be ordered, arranged for our own delight, reflections of our wants and loves, gardens. Socrates, as reported by Plato in his Republic, draws a parallel between the rule of the city and rule of the soul. To let parks deteriorate—whether simply through neglect the plant life dies and pavement cracks and crumbles, or through failures of enforcement and perverse policy the most vulnerable and needy are left to rot in public upon the grass—is to stop caring for some part of our civic soul.
This is personal for me. Portland, Oregon, is the first city I ever loved. I remember, as a freshman in college, reading the funeral oration of Pericles and being asked by my professor if I would die for my political order as Pericles asked the citizens of the Athenian polis to die for theirs. I wasn’t sure, then, how much the abstracted idea of America could summon the greatest love from me. But so freshly departed from home I was sure that if it ever came to it, I could fight and die for Portland. I’m not so sure now. Its beauty and its order is much diminished. It is a city known for its parks, whole blocks stretching across downtown, a beautiful waterfront, sweet-smelling rose gardens, trails and forests, neighborhoods tucked away in the crooks and curves of hills and rivers. Less so now. Every visit home is a tour of increasing shabbiness, decreasing care, more litter and more tents and more pretense that everything is fine, that a few blocks of chaos means nothing, that windows can break and fires be started without consequence, and the parks can be untended.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.
Published at Sat, 22 May 2021 04:01:52 +0000
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