Public lands and parks should be among our most prized treasures. That we misuse civic space is data point and barometric reading of our societal health.
Considering the way we allow mining interests to destroy pristine mountain ranges across the nation, the mess surrounding New London’s Riverside Park should come as no surprise.
Riverside Park abuts and overlooks the Thames River in New London historic eastern neighborhood. The public has enjoyed the views and strolls through Riverside Park for more than a century.
In 1908, two local wealthy patrons, Frank Brandegee and Sebastian Duffy Lawrence donated 11 acres of waterfront property, known as Lewis Woods Grove to the city to expand Riverside Park, according to Newlondonlandmarks.org. Their gift included this statement:
“…being impressed with the importance of preserving forever to the people access to the beautiful waters adjacent to our maritime location and with the values of large open places of wooded land to the health and comfort of the public, we tender herewith as a gift to the City of New London a deed of the above described land…”.
Fast forward 100 years. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy wants space to expand. The City of New London, like most other municipalities across the country, is going broke because this country fails to tax wealth and misspends its tax income on wars of aggression and corporate handouts.
Riverside Park, despite the best efforts of active citizens, has fallen into some disrepair. The neighborhoods in eastern New London have lost some affluence, and might now be considered among the poorer parts of New London.
Some geniuses get together. With the basic assumption that poor people don’t need parks, these geniuses decide that the Coast Guard Academy should buy most of Riverside Park for $2.9 million, and leave the city with chunks of the Park that are largely unusable.
The madness gets to the point that the question is put on the ballot in 2011’s municipal elections in New London: “Shall the City of New London sell a portion of Riverside Park to the Federal Government?”
My friends and compadres in the New London Green Party work their tails off on the vote. Despite running a full slate of candidates for city council and the board of education, the New London Greens fail to win any seats because they focused so much effort on saving Riverside Park.
On election night, the vote appears to favor the sale. But the razor thin margin required a recount, and in the end, simple majority turns down the sale. So, all was not lost for the New London Greens.
Democratic candidate Daryl Finizio, a save-the-park guy, won the mayoral election. But powerful proponents of the sale are angry. The Coast Guard threatens to take its toy boat and move somewhere else.
Finizio rewards the Greens by appointing their campaign manager, Tim Hanser, to be public works director in New London.
But, Finizio is confronted by a $15 million deficit, or thereabouts. One of his trusted confidants floats the idea of selling the park for $15 million, to cover the deficit. The battle never seems to stop.
Ronna Stuller, a leader of the save-the-park movement, lost her re-election campaign to the board of education, but, again, helped save the park. She was in turn nominated to serve on the New London Planning and Zoning Committee.
Alas, on Monday night, February 7, she was rejected by a few members of city council. Their rationale? She was for saving the park.
You would think someone who has the vision to see the importance of public parks and someone who has the guts to fight for their vision would be a valued member of a planning and zoning commission. Not in New London.
Stuller serves as co-chair of the Connecticut Green Party with me. As I have listened to this saga unfold during the past several years, I have been confounded by the palpable disdain for parks.
This is not limited to New London. You will recall that in Hartford, Chris Doucot and the Catholic Worker tribe in the North End protested long and loud about the City confiscating open, green space on Capen and Barbour to build grandparents housing.
Forget rehabilitating old housing stock, we paved over green space and put up housing. Or similarly, up Clark Street, a deal was struck to cannibalize part of a park for developers.
Or what about the Haddam Land Swap? A decade ago, a wealthy businessman sold 17 acres of prime property in Haddam with a stunning view of the Connecticut River to the state for preservation in perpetuity.
Corruption ensues, and a powerful senator convinces the entire legislature to roll over and sell the park to private interests.
This malaise and disregard for public lands indicates exactly what we think about our government and our country: our public resources are but a piggy bank for those who can afford to buy access to it.
This was not always how Americans saw America. About 160 years ago, Reverend Horace Bushnell was celebrated as a civic hero for turning a steaming, stinking refuse heap by a dirty river into a magnificent park.
The Bushnell Park Foundation’s website describes Bushnell as a man of his times. He heard the Transcendentalist call of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson that people could grow closer to God through nature.
Bushnell envisioned making Hartford the state’s only capital (as back then, the legislature alternated between Hartford and New Haven). In October 1853, to laughter, he requested and received a hearing before the Court of Common Council in Hartford.
He spoke for an hour, arguing that the city needed: “an opening in the heart of the city itself, to which citizens will naturally flow in their walks. A place where children will play and the invalid go to breathe the freshness of nature.
“A place for holiday scenes and celebrations; a green carpet of ground, where high and low, rich and poor will exchange looks; an outdoor parlor opened for the cultivation of good manners and a right social feeling. A place of life and motion that will make us more conscious of being one people.”
Based on Bushnell’s argument, the City purchased the land for $105,000 (at least $4 million in 2012) and made us a spectacular park that so many of us enjoy now.
Bushnell’s Transcendalist-inpsired vision remains relevant today to Riverside Park in New London or to the conservation property in Haddam, or even to the shattering of Pope Park for interstate 84.
Yet what are we doing? We are privatizing, and shrinking the public realm, instead of expanding our shared wealth.
In a time of hatred and civil division and slavery, Horace Bushnell managed to rally people around building civic monuments for the future.
Yet today, in a time of hatred and civil division and slavery (iPhone anyone?), our cynical civic leaders seek to cash in on positions of power for private gain, as our centuries’ old insitutions crumble around us.
This is repulsive, and the avarice which propels this disintegration must be called by its proper name.
Yet it is endemic in our American culture. So it should come as no surprise. But people like Frank Brandegee and Sebastian Duffy Lawrence of New London and the Reverend Horace Bushnell would be aghast at how we, their descendants, treat their legacy.
We must not stand for it.