City Parks as Healing Instruments
Mark Antony Rossi

In what is now called the inner city the first experience a poor child has with outdoor frolic revolves around the closest public park. My childhood park on 11th Street in Hoboken swarmed with children unwilling to be stifled  in drab tenement buildings. The park was a sanctuary to more than gray squirrels. It was a second home to latchkey kids who seldom saw their parents working opposite shifts. I composed some of my very first attempts at poetry on a park bench my grandmother told me once held my grandfather who died on it. Men after World War II rarely sought psychological counsel after witnessing and surviving the horrors of warfare. To do so was an admission of a weakness. My grandfather drank himself into a  stupor to drown out the pain coursing through his shattered spirit. He fell asleep drunk on that bench on a cold winter night and was promptly found by a patrolman the next morning: frozen to death. Grandma said he looked at peace. Too bad she never did. I tried to find some spirit, some inspiration, some type of connection with his presence and my verse. It did not work like I hoped. My poem about my frozen dead grandfather went over badly with my family. Grandma tore it up and banished me to my room. Perverse as this may sound the incident galvanized my efforts to write further. I sensed a power from writing I did not have otherwise. For I was no athlete nor was I particularly handsome. But then again I was only 8. Time heals all acne.

The power I discovered by accident was the power to make my grandmother cry. That was not part of the grand scheme. I was not comfortable with that aspect of it but somehow I knew this writing thing was a useful vehicle to deliver the thoughts of my heart and mind. Grandma was more forgiving after my "coolest grandma in the world" poem was written. She was very supportive and I tried hardnot to hurt her feelings again. In general the public park became a zone of contemplation for kids who could not or did not want to spend their time home alone. All the kids I knew from my modest background had a television but the reception was lousy. You only could do so much with a metalcoat hangar. The day our fathers, those of us who had one of them rare creatures, would call a TVrepairman was the day he'd have to admit he knew nothing about TV repairing or had less money than a soup kitchen wino. We knew that wasn't going to happen any time soon. 

The park was always open. The park did not have these problems with pride and profit. It cared for us and we cared for it. 

Later in adulthood the "parkies," the nickname we gave ourselves, could call upon those simpler park days to soothe the grown-up realities of rent and relationships. The merry-go-rounds and metal-linked swings that pinched your fingers were pleasurable escapes from an existence none of us asked for but nevertheless were thrust into and made to sink or swim. Some of my friends never made it. They found more powerful escapes like drugs and criminal activities and paid with their lives. The park helps me remember them the way they were: innocent and ignored, by all, but their closest friends. Those of us who were able to swim and make a life, made out well. We know wherever there is a park there is an instant friend ready to welcome you home. I was the only writer within the group. I have the responsibility to jot down these matters and what they meant to each one of us. Sadly, my friends are not so in tune with their feelings and their childhood's. Good men in all. But I couldn't get three sentences strung out from the lot of them. Six of us met a few times after I returned from the US Air Force. Our conversation and horseplay increased in a restaurant or sports bar, but decreased as we approached the 11th Street Park. Most of the guys were quiet and carried on with an air of deep respect for the place. Some things had changed about the park. The stone chess tables were gone. As were the monkey bars which were nearly halved when lightning struck a tree which in turn slammed into the metal frame of the monkey bars. That tree was more than a 120 years old. I missed the Zebra and the giant building blocks you could hide in a game of hide and seek.

The guys kept their deepest feelings pretty well wrapped up like most men do. This is not a new revelation. Most societies condition young men to hide their feelings for fear of being considered weak or girl-like. In America I always wondered why women find this so damn annoying; viewing it as an impediment to a healthy relationship. I wonder due to the inconvenient ironies that inform me that the women who usually raise poor city kids reinforce this very conditioning. I am fully aware of the fact that keeping his feelings to himself after WWII destroyed my grandfather before he had an opportunity to live a productive life. I am aware of his generation and I am aware had he opened up to my grandmother she would have listened and thought him suspect for the mental ward. She would have thought him weak. These facts tend to elude our homegrown feminists who prefer quick neat judgments to justify sloganistic platforms. Simone de Beauvoir had it right, "Life is messy." 

Speaking for the few enraptured by the art of writing, a park can rekindle the desires of creativity kept cold by life's cruel logic. I can now sit on a wooden bench, not my grandfather's, mind you, but a wooden park bench and watch the trees sway, the squirrels chase their kin and remember a childhood when I would make fun of a lonely old man feeding the pigeons. I chuckle to myself about the old man's age (usually owing Moses' money), his wrinkles (ye o' prune face) and how he walked funny (bowel accident in underpants.) All with the mindless notion my kiddie games would go on forever. All with the certainty I had some special immunity to growing that old. Thirty years later you sit in that same spot, mumble an apology to God and the nameless old man; listen to kids making the same foolish assessments you once did. For a moment you think the whole situation is cute until the realization hits you harder than a yellow school bus: the old man you mocked is gone and you are here to take his place. 

A public park is an urban oasis. It teaches there is more to life than the artificiality of brick houses, concrete sidewalks, iron horses and smiling landlords. The park is alive with a distinct sense of life one can easily miss in the confines of a mechanical world. Beyond the imperfections of family, church and society, the park gave wayward children a better understanding of themselves and the world-at-large.It nearly forces you to make friends with others society prefers to pit against each other. You learn early in the park that it somehow serves as a natural instrument of healing by bringing together inreality what hollow words and nice wise men fail to accomplish. The cynics walking among us need to believe all I have said here is a form of romantic revisionism. I received letters to that effect. As usual these cloudy-hearted clowns know the price of everything and the value of nothing. What man knowingly wants to be an enemy of common sense ? None come to mind. But such fools do exist and have lobbied against parks as havens for beer-bums and drug deals. Ignoring their own hypocrisy in taking hired women there to satisfy what they claim is supposed to be addressed within the marriage contract. The same patrolman who found my dead frozen grandfather on that frozen park bench catches these two-faced finks. A public park is a form of poetic justice. A precious, peaceful, civilizing force in the center of a whirling city. Call it an eye of an hurricane, order in the midst of chaos or a spiritual gas station filling the tanks of tired souls. For myself, my friends and my writing, the park is forever associated with healing.; not harm, hypocrisy, or hubris. City kids bear daily witness to the complexity surround them, even more so thirty years later, and they notice with new eyes the parks have a renewing simplicity. A local source of power never running dry. Never leaving your side. The underprivileged offspring of urbana know from personal experience: human beings often fail, the parks do not. 

  • Genesis of a Poetic Conscience (Introduction)
  • Soul Cadence and the Social Poet
  • The Divine Madness of Writing
  • The Writer in a Material World
  • City Parks as Healing Instruments
  • The Creative Benefits of Righteous Anger

  • (C) Copyright Winter, 2000 Mark Antony Rossi All Rights Reserved