Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Court and Spark Park

Danger is in the eye of the beholder.

So when a roomful of people are talking about what Monroe Park conjures up for them, I find myself in the group that has positive associations with it.

At tonight's community conversation sponsored by the Valentine and held at the Nile (another standing room only crowd), we began with everyone writing down their first memory of Monroe Park and their favorite, followed by a discussion of both.

People were talking about fears of walking the park, crimes they'd heard of there, hell, one woman even  grumbled about "the people who feel entitled to go there for free food."

My memory of Monroe Park? I've been proposed to three times there, albeit by strangers.

Not much scary or criminal about that.

The Valentine's Bill Martin said that the series' purpose is to discuss places we care about. "If we said we're going to bulldoze Short Pump, I'm not sure anyone would care."

Or notice.

Like last month's community conversation about Shockoe Bottom, this one brought out mostly city residents, although with a much wider economic range.

Despite all the Food Not Bombs volunteers in attendance, 27% of the attendees make over $100,000.

Fortunately, almost as high a percentage were in the bottom money-making bracket with me, making for a nice range of interests and experiences.

People shared memories of swinging on swing sets as college students, taking the bus to play there as children, and going to a Mattaponi Indian protest on Columbus Day.

Martin showed some great old photographs of the park, everything from an 1854 shot when it was the state fairgrounds to 1870 when it was essentially being farmed to the original stone pyramid fountain, a truly odd looking thing. A 1947 photo showed kids cooling off in the fountain on a summer day.

Some of my favorite pictures  were of the protests and music shows in the '70s. "Monroe Park was a principal music venue in the '70s," Martin said. "A vibrant club scene thrived around it."

One horrific photo showed a college student atop a tiered fountain which was collapsing as the photo was taken. The student died from the fall.

Much more fun were photos of a 1979 snowball fight and a '90s episode where students toilet papered the park.

We used keypads to answer questions to determine the demographics of the room and the biggest surprise for me was that fully a third of the room had never been to Monroe Park.

Kudos to you guys for bothering to show up.

A quiz followed and I scored so-so, not realizing that in 1867 the park was used as a baseball field but definitely knowing that Springsteen's first Richmond show was in the park.

During the discussion portion of the evening, people made suggestions for how to improve the park and some were excellent.

One woman suggested a "Laurel box," kind of like the Hyde Park soap box used in London for Sunday speakers.

Permanent chess boards, more bike racks, public art, a regular farmer's market and regularly scheduled music events were all thrown out as ideas to get people into the park.

Tonight's speaker was Harry "the hat" Kollatz of Richmond magazine, who began with an ode to a high school classmate, Boo Bailey, whom he'd last seen sunbathing on a blanket in Monroe Park with fashionable earrings on.

Boo was special not just because she was with him in the Civil War club ("Don't judge," he said), but because apparently she cut quite a figure that day.

Memories of Boo were followed by tales of Winfred Cutshaw, Richmond's director of public works and a man who returned from a great tour of Europe full of ideas for creating public spaces, parks and grand tree-lined boulevards here.

Arguing with the city to recognize the need for green spaces and to work with the terrain, Harry emphasized the need to create places "to walk, to think, to court."

He got me with that one. The way I see it, cities will not survive or at least not cities worth living in, if they do not have appropriate places to court and woo.

During the final Q & A, we learned two things.

First, the statue of Washington that once stood in Monroe Park was sold to the University of Miami. So many things come to mind, but mainly, what the hell?

Second, Harry has no clue what happened to Boo Bailey.

And with that, we were turned out into the rainy night to find our way, although not to the park given the weather.

I was headed back to J-Ward to meet three friends at Lucy's for dinner. As a bonus, I also found a favorite sous chef sporting a technicolor black eye (more of a purple/red eye at the moment) and sharing a meal with a bartender who looks like Lt. Dan.

A bottle of de Bortoli sparkling brut was already open when I got there, so all I needed was a flute of the easy-drinking bubbly to join in, while our savvy bartender put another bottle on ice in preparation for the next round.

One of our group was a visitor from Annapolis and she brought news that she was abandoning her bayside house to move to a swanky apartment house with guest suites for visitors, nightly happy hours and a Whole Foods across the street.

She says she finally figured out that she was happiest in life during college, living communally with limited stuff. I say, whatever makes you happy is what you need to pursue, even if it means moving for the third time in as many years.

Damp, cold weather made the fish chowder blackboard special sound mighty appealing to me and the bowl of mahi mahi, bacon and skin-on potatoes satisfied on all fronts.

On the screen was "Gilligan's Island," which led to a discussion of TV watching, not my strong suit.

The beauty of eating with this group is shared food, so I tasted through shrimp cocktail (with Old Bay oyster crackers that were such a hit more were ordered), a Cesar salad that had the out-of-towner grimacing at anchovies she quickly gave away, and multiple NY strips with horseradish potatoes au gratin.

The last chocolate bread pudding in the house served as dessert since it was the only chocolate option.

One in our group was fading fast and he claimed it was due to having unexpectedly awakened at 6 a.m. the last two days, a brutal way to start the day when you don't have to be up that early.

Another said she regularly gets five, no more than six, hours of sleep a night and it's been that way for her since childhood.

She was amazed that I get nine every night, while the curly-headed one was just envious of my ability to get that much.

To each her own.

As long as I keep getting proposed to in Monroe Park, I'm going to assume all that sleep is working for me.

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