While some landmark public space projects, like New York’s Highline, produce a great deal of excitement and participation, other projects mainly attract the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) crowd, while most small scale neighborhood public space projects with low potential for generating economic growth fail to generate the kind of participation that would benefit not only the design of the project, but also the ongoing community engagement vital to sustaining the public space over time. These observations led me to the question: How does a design professional engage people to participate in the development of neighborhood public spaces in such a way that they see those spaces as an integral and ongoing part of their daily lives? Last fall, I coordinated two projects, Framing Lafayette Park and Share A Chair, in two parks in Salem Massachusetts that begin to explore this question on site.
Share-a-Chair – A Poetry Reading and Chair Offering in Mary Jane Lee Park
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, over a dozen participants marched nine bright blue chairs down Lafayette Street (1A), a main thoroughfare in Salem, and along Massachusetts’ North Shore. The destination was Mary Jane Lee Park in Salem’s Point neighborhood. The small park is virtually unknown by residents outside the area’s borders, but within the neighborhood, Mary Jane Lee Park is considered the heart of the community. Salem residents that do know the park have a negative image of the space since it is within the “dangerous” Point Neighborhood – roughly twenty-two motley blocks that have served as a transition zone to generations of new immigrant communities to the area. As a result, most project participants had never been to this park, although many grew up in the area and currently attend Salem State University less than a mile away.
As participants set up the chairs to prepare for the poetry reading, I invited the middle-school aged children by the swings to join and listen; it was the small kids that came. Participants sat in a semi-circle as one person followed another to the pine tree that acted as our stage for the group reading. The children were instantly engaged. One girl asked me if this was to happen every day. Some made noises, others quieted them. They wanted to read, and sing, but they were too shy. I am sure if we could stage poetry readings more than once, they would eventually participate.
After the readings, participants named the chair they had carried over, and placed it in the park, in a particular space that seemed to need a chair. The park has no flexible seating. During previous research, I learned from resident interviews that park benches had been removed to discourage use by “undesirable people.” Currently, the park has two stationary benches by the playground and five picnic tables chained to three mature trees, sending a rather hostile message to park users. The chairs we left would not be tied down, but flexible to be placed at will.
The children were excited that the chairs would stay; they were also somewhat confused, and a couple warned me that the chairs would be destroyed by “the big kids.”
The young quickly appropriated the chairs for a game of musical chairs. Then the older kids took them to watch the basketball game underway. The chairs were successfully offered and belonged to the park to use or destroy.
On the following day, my husband and I returned to the park.
As we crossed the long asphalt stretch, we could see the chairs lined up next to the playground. Why is it that the simple arrangement of these in a straight line is so moving? A line shows a certain level of care. I counted the chairs: eight. It had been less than twenty-four hours since we marched with over a dozen people to read poems in this neighborhood park. When we left, most of the chairs were on the basketball court; adolescents used them to sit and watch the game, but also as a step up to the slam dunk.
As I reached the chairs, I noticed a little girl that had been there at the reading. She told me that the older kids, on the court, broke one of the chairs, so she, and the other young kids “rescued” the chairs to keep them safe by the playground. While the reasons for destruction are undeniably complex, the saving of the chairs is simple and heroic.
On Tuesday morning, on my way to the train station for the workday commute, I stopped by Mary Jane Lee Park to check on the chairs three days after their deployment. I initially spotted no chairs at all as my eyes scanned the horizon. Finally, I looked down and saw them, all in pieces and all over the park. These chairs were transformed; they embodied anger, frustration, or perhaps just teenage play? Appropriated fragments, piles of blue bones, not simply broken, but systematically dismembered. The work I put into fixing and painting them now had a new layer of work infused into the old wood – the work of destruction which tells stories as much as the act of creation.
I found a couple of the tags on the ground; the tags inform:
Meet ___(name)_________, the chair.
Place ___(name)_________, where
you need a place to sit – in the park, on the sidewalk, anywhere in public space.
and in Spanish:
Conoce a ____(nombre)__, la silla.
Coloque a ____(nombre)__, donde
se necesite un lugar para sentarse – en
el parque, en la acera, en cualquier
lugar en el espacio público.
The Point has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in Salem. In some ways, I thought I was trying to relate, but I knew I would be missing things – perhaps big things.
Questions tumble forth unchecked: What are the tangled narratives strewn in all four corners of this park – this self-contained world? Anger at people foreign to the space coming in to perform unwarranted? To give what is not wanted? The young received and appropriated the chairs. I wonder what could be given and received by all?
As questions abound, I realized that the dialogue has been nudged forward.