Hemming Park problem

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Opinion by Ron Chamblin - - What is the problem? The park was designed and built to be used by all citizens. There is a segment of the population which cannot use the park because of the overwhelming and continual presence of another segment of the population. I shall call this latter segment the "habitual occupiers."

The excluded segment, those prevented from using the park, is made up of the local workers who might wish to use the park for lunch and breaks, many city core residents who might wish to relax in the park, and city core visitors who might wish to visit the park.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of the habitual occupiers is black is considered by some to be of significance. A casual visit to the park seems to indicate that the habitual occupiers consist of about 90% black. However, even if the habitual occupiers were little old lady knitting groups, or businessmen's clubs, or all Orthodox Jews, Neo Nazis, or an all-white younger set milling around all day, they too, by their overwhelming and continual presence in the park, would be guilty of preventing other citizens from using it.

How do the habitual occupiers actually prevent others from using the park? The overwhelming presence of 70 to 100 individuals making up any kind of a homogenous group, no matter the color or kind of organization, is intimidating to most potential park visitors. And too, the fact that all of the tables and benches are already taken up by the habitual occupiers is enough to turn a potential park visitor away.

It has been suggested that if the park were to be programmed with events or activities every day, then the event alone would solve the problem simply because the habitual occupiers could be easily asked to move out so that the event could proceed. This would be somewhat effective as long as the momentum of events could be maintained. However, people must work, so it is unlikely that weekday events could be maintained. It seems feasible however that activities and events on weekends might be maintained for a while. But what happens when the momentum or interest subsides after several months of programming weekend activities? The park will again be overwhelmed by the same set of occupiers. I suggest that the programming of the park should be instituted for the weekends, but in conjunction with other actions discussed herein. These several actions will together result in solving the park problem.

The unreasonable, overwhelming, excessive, and habitual daily occupation of the park by the same set of occupiers, which results in preventing other citizens from using the park, should give the city and its citizens the right to take actions which will remove these habitual occupiers. However, the actions taken must be of a kind which does not infringe on their rights. The park is after all open to all citizens.

The pressure to affect removal of the current set of habitual occupiers must come from several fronts. There are programs in effect which attempt to assist some of these individuals so that they might achieve a better living situation. Each individual removed in this manner is to be celebrated as the best method of solving the problem. But this is a long term approach, and some of the habitual occupiers will not respond to this kind of assistance. It has been suggested that the city provide some kind of "day center" so that these individuals, some being homeless, will have a place to bathe, read, use computers, etc. Currently their day center consists of the library and Hemming Park. This is not good for the city core.

The short term approach of enforcing the current set of park rules, along with the creation of some new rules, is perhaps one of the potentially most effective methods of decreasing the park population. Strict and aggressive enforcement of park rules will result in the banning of individuals from the park, which over time will decrease the park population to a level which will not offer the intimidating scenario which prevents other citizens from entering the park. The banned individuals will of necessity find other places to loiter. They will tire of being harassed and banned by the park officers, and some will find other things to do, other places to hang out.

As the park occupier population decreases to a reasonable level, the park image will be less intimidating to the potential visitor. It is quite calming and pleasing to see the occasional game of chess in the park, the discussion of several individuals, the couple eating lunch, or sitting with their child, the old man warming in the sun. And any classic park must have the beautiful oak trees, as they alone offer great beauty to the park visitor, whether they are in the park or observing it from a distance.

As little as possible should be changed in the park, as it is quite beautiful. Any diseased trees should be replaced with young trees. Any ledges not conducive to visual needs for park enforcement could be modified or removed. Although it might be necessary to remove certain tables and benches for some reason, to remove many of these functional conveniences only admits that we are changing the park, degrading it, because we are impatient to solve the problems by creative and effective methods.

The park design, including any changes, should be performed for the long term, anticipating its use by many of the citizens who will eventually be able to use the park as we succeed in decreasing the current population of occupiers to a reasonable level. To destroy the beauty or classic function of the park in an attempt to solve the current problem would be a shame, and would be wasteful of funds, time, and energy. We need to make small adjustments to the park, not radical changes in an effort to solve a problem which should be solved by other methods. No matter what we do to the park, including removing all of the conveniences and trees so that it is bare lawn, if we do not enforce the rules, the same set of habitual occupiers will continue to occupy, standing in the park, talking, cursing, fighting, selling drugs, and intimidating the average citizen who would like to be in the park.

To see two or three dozen citizens enjoying the park, sitting on benches, playing chess at the tables, sunning on the ledges, relaxing alone on a bench, is calming and adds to the essence and beauty of a park. The occasional word or conversation with a stranger can be a very pleasant experience. However, to look upon the park and see several crowds or homogeneous groups, standing, all day, appearing to have taken control of the park, is intimidating. It is unfair to those who wish to use the park for a brief period, which is how it should be used, and not as a daytime camp, an all-day occupation for those who cannot see, and perhaps do not care, how they are destroying one of our city core's best attributes, and how their very presence is hindering our efforts to revitalize our downtown. Currently, the park is a negative for the city core. We must make it a positive.

Along with the strict enforcement of the existing park rules, and the initiation of some new rules, perhaps the mayor could have a face to face talk with the current set of occupiers. Along with preparing them for upcoming aggressive enforcement of new rules, he could convince some of them to respect the purpose of the park, and the other citizens who wish to use it. He could explain to them the negative image they are creating, and how they are making it much more difficult to revitalize the city core. Perhaps he could explain how the much needed revitalization success will provide more jobs so that they will not feel it necessary to loiter in the park all day. Perhaps we could engage some of these individuals with conversation about a solution so that some of them will assist in achieving it.

Metro Jacksonville