The opening day of the new Cal Anderson Park and Bobby Morris Playfield was a spectacular success, on a stunningly beautiful Saturday. Many Capitol Hill residents and civic leaders have expressed their hope that the park's opening day, on the first day of autumn, has marked a greater "change of seasons" in the neighborhood.
They'd like to see the park's surrounding blocks transformed from its recent reputation (deserved or not) as a haven for addicts and panhandlers, declining retail and increasing vacancies. They'd like to see the beautiful new park engender a beautiful new image (or better yet, a reality) of happy, prosperous households of various gender/race variants, of confidence and neighborliness and cleanliness and commerce.
I wouldn't pin all hopes on the new park. It's a great achievement (and kudos to all the planners, architects and builders involved). But it can't do everything. No building project, by itself, can turn a neighborhood around, despite years of spoken and unspoken promises in that regard by the local civic-planning establishment.
Back in the Reagan days, various left-wing wags used to claim the Republicans never met a missile system they didn't like. Today's Seattle Democrats never met a construction project THEY didn't like. (Except the Monorail-it wouldn't service suburban commuters, and it wouldn't make Paul Allen any more money.)
A breakdown of civil niceties along University Way? Just widen parts of the sidewalk and install some new plant hangers.
Federal support for arts programs dwindling? Build a few more museum and theater buildings; pay no mind toward whether the organizations occupying these buildings can afford to do anything within them.
Suburban sprawl draining the city's share of the county and state, and therefore of their tax bases and political attentions? Rezone huge sections of town (other than upper-middle-class bungalow blocks) for upscale condos.
Traffic jams threatening downtown as a commuting/shopping destination? Build on-ramps, light rail and a Viaduct-replacing tunnel.
A goodly number of our city politicians rely for campaign funding on the construction lobby and the construction unions. So it's only natural for these politicians to think of their principal jobs as the building of stuff. (The Seattle School District, in contrast, has other influences, and seems to believe the answer to all its problems is to cut back on its physical plant by trying to close neighborhood schools.)
A vast improvement
Yet even with these don't-expect-miracles caveats, there is something to be said for the roles of civic architecture and public spaces in the health and maintenance of a strong neighborhood. A welcoming public space can encourage social interaction, helping improve a sense of community.
In this regard, the new park and playfield are great contributors.
The old Cal Anderson Park wasn't much of a park. It was essentially an open-air reservoir surrounded by a fence, in turn surrounded by a jogging track and a few patches of grass here and there. There wasn't much to do in the old park except run around and then leave, or sit (or nod off) on one of the few, scattered benches.
If the park was underused, the adjacent playfield was often booked solid, especially during baseball/softball season. The grass had to be replanted or replaced so often, it sometimes seemed like the place was closed to the public every fall and winter.
Now, the playfield's been redone for good, in the same kind of artificial turf used at Qwest Field. It can now be used year-round every year, for soccer and football and rugby and every other organized outdoor game. It's also cheaper to maintain.
For unorganized outdoor games (running, jumping, standing still), there's the new Cal Anderson Park, a true gem of a facility. When the city first announced it would put a lid on the reservoir and put added park space on the lid, I expected a bigger but still humble patch of public lawn, maybe a funky little public art piece or two, and not much more.
Instead, we got the green-space equivalent of the new downtown library and City Hall. The park's a glorious example of the ambitious civic architecture that is, or was, tech-biz-era Seattle. It a place meant to be actively used, not merely admired from afar. Even the main public art piece, a fountain and aquacade, can be waded into and walked through. (It also preserves the site's historic connection to water.)
Already, there are signs that the new Cal Anderson Park's attracting the kind of neighborly social gatherings its planners intended.
Well, perhaps not quite as its planners intended. The signs I refer to appeared on Pine Street two weeks ago, promoting a marijuana "smoke-in" at the landscaped mound of grass in the park's northeast corner, referred to in the poster as Teletubby Hill."
Clark Humphrey's column appears in the first issue of each month. His long-running website on popular culture is www.miscmedia.com.